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by Winston Spencer Churchill

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Title: London to Ladysmith via Pretoria

Author: Winston Spencer Churchill

Release Date: December 23, 2004 [EBook #14426]

Language: English

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LONDON TO LADYSMITH VIA PRETORIA

BY

WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL

     AUTHOR OF
     'THE STORY OF THE MALAKAND FIELD FORCE, 1897',
     'THE RIVER WAR: AN HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF THE
      RECONQUEST OF THE SOUDAN',
     'SAVROLA: A ROMANCE'

     LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO.
     39 PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON
     NEW YORK AND BOMBAY
     1900




DEDICATION


     THIS COLLECTION OF LETTERS IS INSCRIBED TO

     THE STAFF OF THE
     NATAL GOVERNMENT RAILWAY

     WHOSE CAREFUL AND COURAGEOUS DISCHARGE OF THEIR
     EVERY-DAY DUTIES
     AMID THE PERILS OF WAR
     HAS MADE THEM HONOURABLY CONSPICUOUS
     EVEN AMONG THEIR FELLOW COLONISTS




INTRODUCTORY NOTE


This small book is mainly a personal record of my adventures and
impressions during the first five months of the African War. It may also
be found to give a tolerably coherent account of the operations
conducted by Sir Redvers Buller for the Relief of Ladysmith. The
correspondence of which it is mainly composed appeared in the columns of
the _Morning Post_ newspaper, and I propose, if I am not interrupted by
the accidents of war, to continue the series of letters. The stir and
tumult of a camp do not favour calm or sustained thought, and whatever
is written herein must be regarded simply as the immediate effect
produced by men powerfully moved, and scenes swiftly changing upon what
I hope is a truth-seeking mind.

The fact that a man's life depends upon my discretion compels me to omit
an essential part of the story of my escape from the Boers; but if the
book and its author survive the war, and when the British flag is firmly
planted at Bloemfontein and Pretoria, I shall hasten to fill the gap in
the narrative.

     WINSTON S. CHURCHILL.
     _March 10, 1900_.




CONTENTS


         I.   STEAMING SOUTH
              R.M.S. 'Dunottar Castle,' October 26 and October 29, 1899

        II.   THE STATE OF THE GAME
              Capetown; November 1, 1899

       III.   ALONG THE SOUTHERN FRONTIER
              East London: November 5, 1899

        IV.   IN NATAL
              Estcourt: November 6, 1899

         V.   A CRUISE IN THE ARMOURED TRAIN
              Estcourt: November 9, 1899

        VI.   DISTANT GUNS
              Estcourt: November 10, 1899

       VII.   THE FATE OF THE ARMOURED TRAIN
              Pretoria: November 20, 1899

      VIII.   PRISONERS OF WAR
              Pretoria: November 24, 1899

        IX.   THROUGH THE DUTCH CAMPS
              Pretoria: November 30, 1899

         X.   IN AFRIKANDER BONDS
              Pretoria: December 3, 1899

        XI.   I ESCAPE FROM THE BOERS
              Lourenco Marques: December 22, 1899

       XII.   BACK TO THE BRITISH LINES
              Frere: December 24, 1899

      XIII.   CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR
              Frere: January 4, 1900

       XIV.   A MILITARY DEMONSTRATION AND SOME GOOD NEWS
              Chieveley: January 8, 1900

        XV.   THE DASH FOR POTGIETER'S FERRY
              Spearman's Hill: January 13, 1900

       XVI.   TRICHARDT'S DRIFT AND THE AFFAIR OF ACTON HOMES
              Venter's Spruit: January 22, 1900

      XVII.   THE BATTLE OF SPION KOP
              Venter's Spruit: January 25, 1900

     XVIII.   THROUGH THE FIVE DAYS' ACTION
              Venter's Spruit: January 25, 1900

       XIX.   A FRESH-EFFORT AND AN ARMY CHAPLAIN
              Spearman's Hill: February 4, 1900

        XX.   THE COMBAT OF VAAL KRANTZ
              General Buller's Headquarters: February 9, 1900

       XXI.   HUSSAR HILL
              General Buller's Headquarters: February 15, 1900

      XXII.   THE ENGAGEMENT OF MONTE CRISTO
              Cingolo Neck: February 19, 1900

     XXIII.   THE PASSAGE OF THE TUGELA
              Hospital-ship 'Maine': March 4, 1900

      XXIV.   THE BATTLE OF PIETERS: THE THIRD DAY
              Hospital-ship 'Maine': March 5, 1900

       XXV.   UPON MAJUBA DAY
              Commandant's Office, Durban: March 6, 1900

      XXVI.   THE RELIEF OF LADYSMITH
              Commandant's Office, Durban: March 9, 1900

     XXVII.   AFTER THE SIEGE
              Durban: March 10, 1900



CHAPTER I

STEAMING SOUTH


R.M.S. 'Dunottar Castle,' at sea: October 26, 1899.

The last cry of 'Any more for the shore?' had sounded, the last good-bye
had been said, the latest pressman or photographer had scrambled ashore,
and all Southampton was cheering wildly along a mile of pier and
promontory when at 6 P.M., on October 14, the Royal Mail steamer
'Dunottar Castle' left her moorings and sailed with Sir Redvers Buller
for the Cape. For a space the decks remained crowded with the passengers
who, while the sound of many voices echoed in their ears, looked back
towards the shores swiftly fading in the distance and the twilight, and
wondered whether, and if so when, they would come safe home again; then
everyone hurried to his cabin, arranged his luggage, and resigned
himself to the voyage.

What an odious affair is a modern sea journey! In ancient times there
were greater discomforts and perils; but they were recognised. A man
took ship prepared for the worst. Nowadays he expects the best as a
matter of course, and is, therefore, disappointed. Besides, how slowly
we travel! In the sixteenth century nobody minded taking five months to
get anywhere. But a fortnight is a large slice out of the nineteenth
century; and the child of civilisation, long petted by Science,
impatiently complains to his indulgent guardian of all delay in travel,
and petulantly calls on her to complete her task and finally eliminate
the factor of distance from human calculations. A fortnight is a long
time in modern life. It is also a long time in modern war--especially at
the beginning. To be without news for a fortnight at any time is
annoying. To be without news for a fortnight now is a torture. And this
voyage lasts more than a fortnight! At the very outset of our
enterprise we are compelled to practise Mr. Morley's policy of patience.

We left London amid rumours of all kinds. The Metropolis was shrouded in
a fog of credulous uncertainty, broken only by the sinister gleam of the
placarded lie or the croak of the newsman. Terrible disasters
had occurred and had been contradicted; great battles were
raging--unconfirmed; and beneath all this froth the tide of war was
really flowing, and no man could shut his eyes to grave possibilities.
Then the ship sailed, and all was silence--a heaving silence. But
Madeira was scarcely four days' journey. There we should find the
answers to many questions. At Madeira, however, we learned nothing, but
nothing, though satisfactory, is very hard to understand. Why did they
declare war if they had nothing up their sleeves? Why are they wasting
time now? Such were the questions. Then we sailed again, and again
silence shut down, this time, however, on a more even keel.

Speculation arises out of ignorance. Many and various are the
predictions as to what will be the state of the game when we shall have
come to anchor in Table Bay. Forecasts range from the capture of
Pretoria by Sir George White and the confinement of President Kruger in
the deepest level beneath the Johannesburg Exchange, on the one hand, to
the surrender of Cape Town to the Boers, the proclamation of Mr.
Schreiner as King of South Africa, and a fall of two points in Rand
Mines on the other. Between these wild extremes all shades of opinion
are represented. Only one possibility is unanimously excluded--an
inconclusive peace. There are on board officers who travelled this road
eighteen years ago with Lord Roberts, and reached Cape Town only to
return by the next boat. But no one anticipates such a result this time.

Monotony is the characteristic of a modern voyage, and who shall
describe it? The lover of realism might suggest that writing the same
paragraph over and over again would enable the reader to experience its
weariness, if he were truly desirous of so doing. But I hesitate to
take such a course, and trust that some of these lines even once
repeated may convey some inkling of the dulness of the days. Monotony of
view--for we live at the centre of a complete circle of sea and sky;
monotony of food--for all things taste the same on board ship; monotony
of existence--for each day is but a barren repetition of the last; all
fall to the lot of the passenger on great waters. It were malevolent to
try to bring the realisation home to others. Yet all earthly evils have
their compensations, and even monotony is not without its secret joy.
For a time we drop out of the larger world, with its interests and its
obligations, and become the independent citizens of a tiny State:--a
Utopian State where few toil and none go hungry--bounded on all sides by
the sea and vassal only to the winds and waves. Here during a period
which is too long while it lasts, too short when it is over, we may
placidly reflect on the busy world that lies behind and the tumult that
is before us. The journalists read books about South Africa; the
politician--were the affair still in the domain of words--might examine
the justice of the quarrel. The Headquarter Staff pore over maps or
calculate the sizes of camps and entrenchments; and in the meantime the
great ship lurches steadily forward on her course, carrying to the south
at seventeen miles an hour schemes and intentions of war.

But let me record the incidents rather than their absence. One day the
first shoal of flying fish is seen--a flight of glittering birds that,
flushed by the sudden approach of the vessel, skim away over the waters
and turn in the cover of a white-topped wave. On another we crossed the
Equator. Neptune and his consort boarded us near the forecastle and
paraded round the ship in state. Never have I seen such a draggle-tailed
divinity. An important feature in the ritual which he prescribes is the
shaving and ducking of all who have not passed the line before. But our
attitude was strictly Erastian, and the demigod retired discomfited to
the second class, where from the sounds which arose he seemed to find
more punctilious votaries. On the 23rd we sighted a sail--or rather the
smoke of another steamer. As the comparatively speedy 'Dunottar Castle'
overtook the stranger everybody's interest was aroused. Under the
scrutiny of many brand-new telescopes and field glasses--for all want to
see as much of a war as possible--she developed into the 'Nineveh,'
hired transport carrying the Australian Lancers to the Cape. Signals
were exchanged. The vessels drew together, and after an hour's steaming
we passed her almost within speaking distance. The General went up to
the bridge. The Lancers crowded the bulwarks and rigging of the
'Nineveh' and one of them waggled a flag violently. An officer on our
ship replied with a pocket-handkerchief. The Australians asked
questions: 'Is Sir Redvers Buller on board?' The answer 'Yes' was
signalled back, and immediately the Lancers gave three tremendous
cheers, waving their broad-brimmed hats and gesticulating with energy
while the steam siren emitted a frantic whoop of salutation. Then the
speed of the larger vessel told, and we drew ahead of the transport
until her continued cheers died away. She signalled again: 'What won the
Cesarewitch?' But the distance was now too great for us to learn whether
the answer gave satisfaction or not.

We have a party of cinematographers on board, and when they found that
we were going to speak the 'Nineveh' they bustled about preparing their
apparatus. But the cumbrous appliances took too long to set up, and, to
the bitter disappointment of the artists, the chance of making a moving
picture was lost for ever; and indeed it was a great pity, because the
long green transport, pitching in the sea, now burying her bows in foam,
now showing the red paint of her bottom, her decks crowded with the
active brown figures of the soldiers, her halyards bright with signal
flags, was a scene well worth recording even if it had not been the
greeting given in mid-ocean to the commander of the army by the warlike
contingent which the need or convenience of the Empire had drawn from
the Antipodes.

South of the line the weather cools rapidly, and various theories are
advanced to explain the swift change. According to some, it is due to
the masses of ice at the Antarctic Pole; others contend that it is
because we are further from the land. But whatever the cause may be, the
fall in temperature produces a rise in spirits, and under greyer skies
everyone develops activity. The consequence of this is the organisation
of athletic sports. A committee is appointed. Sir Redvers Buller becomes
President. A two days' meeting is arranged, and on successive afternoons
the more energetic passengers race violently to and fro on the decks,
belabour each other with bolsters, or tumble into unforeseen troughs of
water to their huge contentment and the diversion of the rest.

Occasionally there are light gusts of controversy. It is Sunday. The
parson proposes to read the service. The captain objects. He insists on
the maintenance of naval supremacy. On board ship, 'or at any rate on
board this ship,' no one but the captain reads the service. The
minister, a worthy Irishman, abandons the dispute--not without regret.
'Any other clergyman of the Church of England,' he observes with warmth,
'would have told the captain to go to Hell.'

Then there is to be a fancy dress ball. Opinions are divided. On the one
part it is urged that fancy dress balls are healthy and amusing. On the
other, that they are exceedingly tiresome. The discussion is prolonged.
In the end the objectors are overruled--still objecting. Such are the
politics of the State.

Inoculation against enteric fever proceeds daily. The doctors lecture in
the saloon. One injection of serum protects; a second secures the
subject against attacks. Wonderful statistics are quoted in support of
the experiment. Nearly everyone is convinced. The operations take place
forthwith, and the next day sees haggard forms crawling about the deck
in extreme discomfort and high fever. The day after, however, all have
recovered and rise gloriously immune. Others, like myself, remembering
that we still stand only on the threshold of pathology, remain
unconvinced, resolved to trust to 'health and the laws of health.' But
if they will, invent a system of inoculation against bullet wounds I
will hasten to submit myself.

Yesterday we passed a homeward-bound liner, who made great efforts to
signal to us, but as she was a Union boat the captain refused to go near
enough to read the flags, and we still remain ignorant of the state of
the war. If the great lines of steamships to the Cape were to compete
against each other, as do those of the Atlantic, by increasing their
speeds, by lowering their rates, by improving the food and
accommodation, no one would complain, but it is difficult to see how the
public can be the gainers by the silly antagonism I have described.
However, the end is drawing very near, and since we have had a safe and
prosperous journey criticism may well waive the opportunity. Yet there
are few among the travellers who will not experience a keen feeling of
relief in exchanging the pettiness, the monotony, and the isolation of
the voyage for the activity of great enterprise and the interest of real
affairs: a relief which may, perhaps, be shared by the reader of these
letters. Yet if he has found the account of a dull voyage dull, he
should not complain; for is not that successful realism?


October 29.

News at last! This morning we sighted a sail--a large homeward-bound
steamer, spreading her canvas to catch the trades, and with who should
say what tidings on board. We crowded the decks, and from every point of
view telescopes, field glasses, and cameras were directed towards the
stranger. She passed us at scarcely two hundred yards, and as she did so
her crew and company, giving three hearty cheers, displayed a long black
board, on which was written in white paint: 'Boers defeated; three
battles; Penn Symons killed.' There was a little gasp of excitement.
Everyone stepped back from the bulwarks. Those who had not seen ran
eagerly up to ask what had happened. A dozen groups were formed, a hum
of conversation arose, and meanwhile the vessels separated--for the pace
of each was swift--and in a few moments the homeward bound lay far in
our wake.

What does it mean--this scrap of intelligence which tells so much and
leaves so much untold? To-morrow night we shall know all. This at least
is certain: there has been fierce fighting in Natal, and, under Heaven,
we have held our own: perhaps more. 'Boers defeated.' Let us thank God
for that. The brave garrisons have repelled the invaders. The luck has
turned at last. The crisis is over, and the army now on the seas may
move with measured strides to effect a final settlement that is both
wise and just. In that short message eighteen years of heartburnings are
healed. The abandoned colonist, the shamed soldier, the 'cowardly
Englishman,' the white flag, the 'How about Majuba?'--all gone for ever.
At last--'the Boers defeated.' Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

So Sir Penn Symons is killed! Well, no one would have laid down his life
more gladly in such a cause. Twenty years ago the merest chance saved
him from the massacre at Isandhlwana, and Death promoted him in an
afternoon from subaltern to senior captain. Thenceforward his rise was
rapid. He commanded the First Division of the Tirah Expeditionary Force
among the mountains with prudent skill. His brigades had no misfortunes:
his rearguards came safely into camp. In the spring of 1898, when the
army lay around Fort Jumrood, looking forward to a fresh campaign, I
used often to meet him. Everyone talked of Symons, of his energy, of his
jokes, of his enthusiasm. It was Symons who had built a racecourse on
the stony plain; who had organised the Jumrood Spring Meeting; who won
the principal event himself, to the delight of the private soldiers,
with whom he was intensely popular; who, moreover, was to be first and
foremost if the war with the tribes broke out again; and who was
entrusted with much of the negotiations with their _jirgas_. Dinner with
Symons in the mud tower of Jumrood Fort was an experience. The memory
of many tales of sport and war remains. At the end the General would
drink the old Peninsular toasts: 'Our Men,' 'Our Women,' 'Our Religion,'
'Our Swords,' 'Ourselves,' 'Sweethearts and Wives,' and 'Absent
Friends'--one for every night in the week. The night when I dined the
toast was 'Our Men.' May the State in her necessities find others like
him!




CHAPTER II

THE STATE OF THE GAME


Cape Town: November 1, 1899.

The long-drawn voyage came to an end at last. On the afternoon of
October 30 we sighted land, and looking westward I perceived what looked
like a dark wave of water breaking the smooth rim of the horizon. A
short time developed the wave into the rocks and slopes of Robben
Island--a barren spot inhabited by lepers, poisonous serpents, and dogs
undergoing quarantine. Then with the darkness we entered Table Bay, and,
steaming slowly, reached the anchorage at ten o'clock. Another hour of
waiting followed until the tugboat obeyed the signal; but at last she
ran alongside, and there stepped on board a Man Who Knew. Others with
despatches pushed roughly through the crowd of soldiers, officers,
passengers, and war correspondents to the General's cabin. We caught the
Man Who Knew, however, and, setting him half way up the ladder to the
hurricane deck, required him forthwith to tell us of the war. Doubtless
you have been well informed of all, or at any rate of much, that has
passed. The man told his story quickly, with an odd quiver of excitement
in his voice, and the audience--perhaps we were 300--listened
breathless. Then for the first time we heard of Elandslaagte, of
Glencoe, of Rietfontein, a tale of stubborn, well-fought fights with
honour for both sides, triumph for neither. 'Tell us about the
losses--who are killed and wounded?' we asked this wonderful man. I
think he was a passage agent or something like that.

So he told us--and among the group of officers gathered above him on the
hurricane deck I saw now one, now another, turn away, and hurry out of
the throng. A gentleman I had met on the voyage--Captain Weldonasked
questions. 'Do you know any names of killed in the Leicesters?' The man
reflected. He could not be sure: he thought there was an officer named
Weldon killed--oh, yes! he remembered there were two Weldons--one
killed, one wounded, but he did not know which was in the Leicesters.
'Tell us about Mafeking,' said someone else. Then we heard about
Mafeking--the armoured trains, the bombardment, the sorties, the
dynamite wagons--all, in fact, that is yet known of what may become an
historic defence. 'And how many Boers are killed?' cried a private
soldier from the back. The man hesitated, but the desire to please was
strong within him. 'More than two thousand,' he said, and a fierce shout
of joy answered him. The crowd of brown uniforms under the electric
clusters broke up into loud-voiced groups; some hastened to search for
newspapers, some to repeat what they had heard to others; only a few
leaned against the bulwarks and looked long and silently towards the
land, where the lights of Cape Town, its streets, its quays, and its
houses gleamed from the night like diamonds on black velvet.

It is along casualty list of officers--of the best officers in the
world. The brave and accomplished General of Glencoe; Colonel Chisholme,
who brought the 9th Lancers out of action in Afghanistan; Sherston, who
managed the Indian Polo Association; Haldane, Sir William Lockhart's
brilliant aide-de-camp; Barnes, adjutant of the 4th Hussars, who played
back of our team and went with me to Cuba; Brooke, who had tempted
fortune more often than anyone else in the last four years--Chitral,
Matabeleland, Samana, Tira, Atbara, and Omdurman--and fifty others who
are only names to me, but are dear and precious to many, all lying under
the stony soil or filling the hospitals at Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
Two thousand Boers killed! I wish I could believe there were.

Next morning Sir Redvers Buller landed in state. Sir F. Forestier-Walker
and his staff came to meet him. The ship was decked out in bunting from
end to end. A guard of honour of the Duke of Edinburgh's Volunteers
lined the quay; a mounted escort attended the carriage; an enormous
crowd gathered outside the docks. At nine o'clock precisely the General
stepped on to the gangway. The crew and stokers of the 'Dunottar Castle'
gave three hearty cheers; the cinematograph buzzed loudly; forty cameras
clicked; the guard presented arms, and the harbour batteries thundered
the salute. Then the carriage drove briskly off into the town through
streets bright with waving flags and black with cheering people. So Sir
Redvers Buller came back again to South Africa, the land where his first
military reputation was made, where he won his Victoria Cross, the land
which--let us pray--he will leave having successfully discharged the
heavy task confided to him by the Imperial Government.

Now, what is the situation which confronts the General and the army? I
will adventure an explanation, though the picture of war moves very
swiftly. In their dealing with the military republics which had become
so formidable a power throughout the Cape, the Ministers who were
responsible for the security of our South African possessions were
compelled to reckon with two volumes of public opinion--British and
colonial. The colonial opinion was at its best (from our point of view)
about three months ago. But the British opinion was still unformed. The
delays and diplomatic disputes which have gradually roused the nation to
a sense of its responsibilities and perils, and which were absolutely
necessary if we were to embark on the struggle united, have had an
opposite effect out here. The attempts to satisfy the conscientious
public by giving the republics every possible opportunity to accept our
terms and the delays in the despatch of troops which were an expensive
tribute to the argument 'Do not seek peace with a sword,' have been
misinterpreted in South Africa. The situation in the Cape Colony has
become much graver. We have always been told of the wonderful loyalty of
the Dutch. It is possible that had war broken out three months ago that
loyalty would have been demonstrated for all time. War after three
months of hesitation--for such it was considered--has proved too severe
a test, and it is no exaggeration to say that a considerable part of the
Colony trembles on the verge of rebellion. On such a state of public
opinion the effect of any important military reverse would be
lamentable.

Nor is the military position such as to exclude anxiety. The swift flame
of war ran in a few days around the whole circle of the republican
frontiers. Far away to the north there was a skirmish at Tuli. On the
west Khama's territories are threatened with invasion. Mafeking is
surrounded, isolated, and manfully defending itself against continual
attack. Vryburg has been treacherously surrendered by its rebel
inhabitants to the enemy. Kimberley offers a serene front to a
hesitating attack, and even retaliates with armoured trains and other
enterprises. The southern frontier is armed, and menaced, and the
expectation of collision is strong. But it is on the eastern side that
the Boers have concentrated their greatest energies. They have gone Nap
on Natal. The configuration of the country favours an invader. The
reader has scarcely to look at the map, with which he is already
familiar, to realise how strategically powerful the Boer position was
and is. The long tongue of plain running up into the mountains could be
entered from both sides. The communications of the advanced garrisons
would be assailed: their retreat imperilled. The Boers seemed bound to
clear northern Natal of the troops. If, on the other hand, they were, or
should now be, suddenly driven back on their own country, they have only
to retire up the tongue of plain, with their exposed front narrowing
every mile between the mountains, and await their pursuers on the almost
inexpugnable position of Laing's Nek. Appreciating all this, their
leaders have wisely resolved to put forth their main strength against
the force in Natal, and by crushing it to rouse their sympathisers
within the Cape Colony. Should they succeed either on this front or on
any other to a serious extent, though the disaffection would not take a
very violent form, for all the bravoes have already joined the enemy,
the general insecurity would demand the employment of an army corps in
addition to that already on the seas.

A democratic Government cannot go to war unless the country is behind
it, and until it has general support must not place itself in a position
whence, without fighting, there is no retreat. The difficulty of
rallying public opinion in the face of the efforts of Mr. Morley, Mr.
Courtney, Sir William Harcourt, and others have caused a most dangerous
delay in the despatch of reinforcements. War has been aggravated by the
Peace Party; and thus these humanitarian gentlemen are personally--for
they occupy no official position--responsible for the great loss of
life. They will find their several consolations: Mr. Morley will rejoice
that he has faithfully pursued Mr. Gladstone's policy in South Africa;
Mr. Courtney that he has been consistent at all costs; Sir William
Harcourt that he has hampered the Government. But for those who lose
their sons and brothers in a quarrel thus unnecessarily extended, there
will only remain vain regrets, and to the eyewitness only a bitter
anger.

For the last three months the Imperial Government has been in the
unpleasant position of watching its adversaries grow continually
stronger without being able to make adequate counter-preparations.

But when once this initial disability has been stated, it must also be
admitted that the course of the military operations has been--apart from
their success or failure--very lucky. The Boers had the advantage of
drawing first blood, and the destruction of the armoured train near
Mafeking was magnified by them, as by the sensational Press in Great
Britain, into a serious disaster. A very bad effect was produced in the
undecided districts--it is perhaps wiser not to specify them at this
moment. But a few days later another armoured train ran out from
Kimberley, and its Maxim guns killed five Boers without any loss to the
troops. The magnifying process was also applied to this incident with
equal though opposite results. Then came the news of the battle of
Glencoe. The first accounts, which were very properly controlled--for we
are at war with the pen as well as the sword--told only of the bravery
of the troops, of the storming of the Boer position, and of the capture
of prisoners. That the troops had suffered the heavier loss, that the
Boers had retired to further positions in rear of the first, drawing
their artillery with them, and that General Yule had retreated by forced
marches to Ladysmith after the victory--for tactical victory it
undoubtedly was--leaked into Cape Colony very gradually; nor was it
until a week later that it was known that the wounded had been left
behind, and that the camp with all stores and baggage, except
ammunition, had fallen into the enemy's hands. Before that happened the
news of Elandslaagte had arrived, and this brilliant action, which
reflects no less credit on Generals French and Hamilton who fought it
than on Sir George White who ordered it, dazzled all eyes, so that the
sequel to Glencoe was unnoticed, or at any rate produced little effect
on public opinion.

The Natal Field Force is now concentrated at Ladysmith, and confronts
in daily opposition the bulk of the Boer Army. Though the numbers of the
enemy are superior and their courage claims the respect of their
professional antagonists, it is difficult to believe that any serious
reverse can take place in that quarter, and meanwhile many thousand
soldiers are on the seas. But the fact is now abundantly plain to those
who are acquainted with the local conditions and with the Boer
character, that a fierce, certainly bloody, possibly prolonged struggle
lies before the army of South Africa. The telegrams, however, which we
receive from Great Britain of the national feeling, of the bye-election,
of Lord Rosebery's speech, are full of encouragement and confidence. 'At
last,' says the British colonist, as he shoulders his rifle and marches
out to fight, no less bravely than any soldier (witness the casualty
lists), for the ties which bind South Africa to the Empire--'at last
they have made up their minds at home.'




CHAPTER III

ALONG THE SOUTHERN FRONTIER


East London: November 5, 1899.

We have left Headquarters busy with matters that as yet concern no one
but themselves in the Mount Nelson Hotel at Cape Town--a most excellent
and well-appointed establishment, which may be thoroughly appreciated
after a sea voyage, and which, since many of the leading Uitlanders have
taken up their abode there during the war, is nicknamed 'The Helot's
Rest.' Last night I started by rail for East London, whence a small ship
carries the weekly English mail to Natal, and so by this circuitous
route I hope to reach Ladysmith on Sunday morning. We have thus gained
three days on our friends who proceed by the 'Dunottar Castle,' and who
were mightily concerned when they heard--too late to follow--of our
intentions. But though it is true in this case that the longest way
round is the shortest way, there were possibilities of our journey being
interrupted, because the line from De Aar Junction to Naauwpoort runs
parallel to the southern frontier of the Free State, and though hostile
enterprises have not yet been attempted against this section of the
railways they must always be expected.

Railway travelling in South Africa is more expensive but just as
comfortable as in India. Lying-down accommodation is provided for all,
and meals can be obtained at convenient stopping places. The train,
which is built on the corridor system, runs smoothly over the rails--so
smoothly, indeed, that I found no difficulty in writing. The sun is
warm, and the air keen and delicious. But the scenery would depress the
most buoyant spirits. We climbed up the mountains during the night, and
with the daylight the train was in the middle of the Great Karroo.
Wherefore was this miserable land of stone and scrub created? Huge
mounds of crumbling rock, fashioned by the rains into the most curious
and unexpected shapes, rise from the gloomy desert of the plain. Yet,
though the Karroo looks a hopeless wilderness, flocks of sheep at
distant intervals--one sheep requires six hundred acres of this scrappy
pasture for nourishment--manage to subsist; and in consequence, now and
again the traveller sees some far-off farm.

We look about eagerly for signs of war. Little is as yet to be seen, and
the Karroo remains unsympathetic. But all along the southern frontier of
the Free State the expectation of early collision grows. The first sign
after leaving Cape Town is the Proclamation against treason published by
Sir Alfred Milner. The notice-boards of the railway stations are freely
placarded with the full text in English and Dutch, beginning with
'Whereas a state of war exists between the Government of her Majesty and
the Governments of the South African Republic and of the Orange Free
State ...' continuing to enjoin good and loyal behaviour on all,
detailing the pains and penalties for disobedience, and ending with 'God
save the Queen.' Both races have recorded their opinions on their
respective versions: the British by underlining the penalties, the Dutch
by crossing out the first word of 'God Save the Queen.' It is signed 'A.
Milner,' and below, in bitter irony, 'W.P. Schreiner.'

Beyond Matjesfontein every bridge, and even every culvert, is watched by
a Kaffir with a flag, so that the train runs no risk of coming on
unexpected demolitions. On the road to De Aar we passed the second half
of the Brigade Division of Artillery, which sailed so long ago from the
Mersey in the notorious transports 'Zibengla' and 'Zayathla.' The
gunners were hurrying to the front in three long trains, each taking
half a battery complete with guns, horses, and men. All were
light-hearted and confident, as soldiers going off to the wars always
are, and in this case their, satisfaction at being on land after five
weeks of uncomfortable voyage in antiquated ships was easily to be
understood. But this is no time for reproaches.

At Beaufort West grave news awaited the mail, and we learned of the
capitulation of twelve hundred soldiers near Ladysmith. It is generally
believed that this will precipitate a rising of the Dutch throughout
this part of the colony and an invasion by the commandos now gathered
along the Orange River. The Dutch farmers talk loudly and confidently of
'our victories,' meaning those of the Boers, and the racial feeling runs
high. But the British colonists have an implicit faith--marvellous when
the past is remembered--in the resolve of the Imperial Government and of
the nation never to abandon them again.

At De Aar the stage of our journey which may be said to have been
uncertain began. Armoured trains patrol the line; small parties of armed
police guard the bridges; infantry and artillery detachments occupy the
towns. De Aar, Colesberg, and Stormberg are garrisoned as strongly as
the present limited means allow, and all the forces, regulars and
volunteers alike, are full of enthusiasm. But, on the other hand, the
reports of Boer movements seem to indicate that a hostile advance is
imminent. The Colesberg bridge across the Orange River has been seized
by the enemy, the line between Bethulie and Colesberg has just been cut,
and each train from De Aar to Stormberg is expected to be the last to
pass unassailed. We, however, slept peacefully through the night, and,
passing Colesberg safely, arrived at Stormberg, beyond which all is
again secure.

Stormberg Junction stands at the southern end of a wide expanse of
rolling grass country, and though the numerous rocky hills, or kopjes as
they are called, which rise inconveniently on all sides, make its
defence by a small force difficult, a large force occupying an extended
position would be secure. Here we found the confirmation of many
rumours. The news of a Boer advance on Burghersdorp, twenty-five miles
away, is, it seems, well founded, and when our train arrived the
evacuation of Stormberg by its garrison, of a half-battalion of the
Berkshire Regiment, 350 men of the Naval Brigade, a company of mounted
infantry, and a few guns, was busily proceeding.

The sailors were already in their train, and only prevented from
starting by the want of an engine. The infantry and artillery were to
start in a few hours. It is rather an unsatisfactory business, though
the arrival of more powerful forces will soon restore the situation.
Stormberg is itself an important railway junction. For more than a week
the troops have been working night and day to put it in a state of
defence. Little redoubts have been built on the kopjes, entrenchments
have been dug, and the few houses near the station are already strongly
fortified. I was shown one of these by the young officer in charge. The
approaches were, cleared of everything except wire fences and
entanglements; the massive walls were loopholed, the windows barricaded
with sandbags, and the rooms inside broken one into the other for
convenience in moving about.

Its garrison of twenty-five men and its youthful commander surveyed the
work with pride. They had laid in stores of all kinds for ten days, and
none doubted that Fort Chabrol, as they called it, would stand a gallant
siege. Then suddenly had come the message to evacuate and retreat. So it
was with the others. The train with the naval detachment and its guns
steamed off, and we gave it a feeble cheer. Another train awaited the
Berkshires. The mounted infantry were already on the march. 'Mayn't we
even blow up this lot?' said a soldier, pointing to the house he had
helped to fortify. But there was no such order, only this one
which seemed to pervade the air: 'The enemy are coming.
Retreat--retreat--retreat!' The stationmaster--one of the best types of
Englishmen to be found on a long journey--was calm and cheerful.

'No more traffic north of this,' he said. 'Yours was the last train
through from De Aar. I shall send away all my men by the special
to-night. And that's the end as far as Stormberg goes.'

'And you?'

'Oh, I shall stay. I have lived here for twelve years, and am well
known. Perhaps I may be able to protect the company's property.'

While we waited the armoured train returned from patrolling--an engine
between two carriages cloaked from end to end with thick plates and
slabs of blue-grey iron. It had seen nothing of the advancing Boers,
but, like us and like the troops, it had to retire southwards. There
were fifty Uitlanders from Johannesburg on the platform. They had been
employed entrenching; now they were bundled back again towards East
London.

So we left Stormberg in much anger and some humiliation, and jolted away
towards the open sea, where British supremacy is not yet contested by
the Boer. At Molteno we picked up a hundred volunteers--fine-looking
fellows all eager to encounter the enemy, but much surprised at the turn
events had taken. They, too, were ordered to fall back. The Boers were
advancing, and to despondent minds even the rattle of the train seemed
to urge 'Retreat, retreat, retreat.'

I do not desire to invest this wise and prudent though discouraging move
with more than its proper importance. Anything is better than to leave
small garrisons to be overwhelmed. Until the Army Corps comes, the
situation will continue to be unsatisfactory, and the ground to be
recovered afterwards will increase in extent. But with the arrival of
powerful and well-equipped forces the tide of war will surely turn.




CHAPTER IV

IN NATAL


Estcourt: November 6, 1899.

The reader may remember that we started post haste from Cape Town, and,
having the good fortune to pass along the southern frontier from De Aar
to Stormberg by the last train before the interruption of traffic, had
every hope of reaching Ladysmith while its investment was incomplete. I
had looked forward to writing an account of our voyage from East London
to Durban while on board the vessel; but the weather was so tempestuous,
and the little steamer of scarcely 100 tons burthen so buffeted by the
waves, that I lay prostrate in all the anguish of sea-sickness, and had
no thought for anything else. Moreover, we were delayed some twenty
hours by contrary winds; nor was it until we had passed St. John's that
the gale, as if repenting, veered suddenly to the south-west and added
as much to our speed as it had formerly delayed us. With the change of
the wind the violence of the waves to some degree abated, and, though
unable to then record them on paper, I had an opportunity of gaining
some impressions of the general aspect of the coasts of Pondoland and
Natal. These beautiful countries stretch down to the ocean in smooth
slopes of the richest verdure, broken only at intervals by lofty bluffs
crowned with forests. The many rivulets to which the pasture owes its
life and the land its richness glide to the shore through deep-set
creeks and chines, or plunge over the cliffs in cascades which the
strong winds scatter into clouds of spray.

These are regions of possibility, and as we drove along before our now
friendly wind I could not but speculate on the future. Here are wide
tracts of fertile soil watered by abundant rains. The temperate sun
warms the life within the soil. The cooling breeze refreshes the
inhabitant. The delicious climate stimulates the vigour of the European.
The highway of the sea awaits the produce of his labour. All Nature
smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.
As yet only the indolent Kaffir enjoys its bounty, and, according to the
antiquated philosophy of Liberalism, it is to such that it should for
ever belong. But while Englishmen choke and fester in crowded cities,
while thousands of babies are born every month who are never to have a
fair chance in life, there will be those who will dream another dream of
a brave system of State-aided--almost State-compelled--emigration, a
scheme of old age pensions that shall anticipate old age, and by
preventing paupers terminate itself; a system that shall remove the
excess of the old land to provide the deficiency of the new, and shall
offer even to the most unfortunate citizen of the Empire fresh air and
open opportunity. And as I pondered on all these things, the face of the
country seemed changed. Thriving ports and townships rose up along the
shore, and, upon the hillsides, inland towers, spires, and tall chimneys
attested the wealth and industry of men. Here in front of us was New
Brighton; the long shelving ledge of rock was a seawall already made,
rows of stately buildings covered the grassy slopes; the shipping of
many nations lay in the roadstead; above the whole scene waved The Flag,
and in the foreground on the sandy beach the great-grandchildren of the
crossing-sweeper and the sandwich-man sported by the waves that beat by
the Southern Pole, or sang aloud for joy in the beauty of their home and
the pride of their race. And then with a lurch--for the motion was still
considerable--I came back from the land of dreams to reality and the
hideous fact that Natal is invaded and assailed by the Boer.

The little steamer reached Durban safely at midnight on November 4, and
we passed an impatient six hours in a sleeping town waiting for daylight
and news. Both came in their turn. The sun rose, and we learned that
Ladysmith was cut off. Still, 'As far as you can as quickly as you can'
must be the motto of the war correspondent, and seven o'clock found us
speeding inland in the extra coach of a special train carrying the
mails. The hours I passed in Durban were not without occupation. The
hospital ship 'Sumatra' lay close to our moorings, and as soon as it was
light I visited her to look for friends, and found, alas! several in a
sorry plight. All seemed to be as well as the tenderest care and the
most lavish expenditure of money could make them. All told much the same
tale--the pluck and spirit of the troops, the stubborn unpretentious
valour of the Boer, the searching musketry. Everyone predicted a
prolonged struggle.

'All these colonials tell you,' said an officer severely wounded at
Elandslaagte, 'that the Boers only want one good thrashing to satisfy
them. Don't you believe it. They mean going through with this to the
end. What about our Government?'

And the answer that all were united at home, and that Boer constancy
would be met with equal perseverance and greater resources, lighted the
pain-drawn features with a hopeful smile.

'Well, I never felt quite safe with those politicians. I can't get about
for two months' (he was shot through the thigh), 'but I hope to be in at
the death. It's our blood against theirs.'

Pietermaritzburg is sixty miles from Durban, but as the railway zigzags
up and down hill and contorts itself into curves that would horrify the
domestic engineer, the journey occupies four hours. The town looks more
like Ootacamund than any place I have seen. To those who do not know the
delightful hill station of Southern India let me explain that
Pietermaritzburg stands in a basin of smooth rolling downs, broken
frequently by forests of fir and blue gum trees. It is a sleepy,
dead-alive place. Even the fact that Colonel Knowle, the military
engineer, was busily putting it into a state of defence, digging up its
hills, piercing its walls, and encircling it with wire obstructions did
not break its apathy. The 'Times of Natal' struggled to rouse
excitement, and placarded its office with the latest telegrams from the
front, some of which had reached Pietermaritzburg _via_ London. But the
composure of the civil population is a useful factor in war, and I wish
it were within the power of my poor pen to bring home to the people of
England how excellently the colonists of Natal have deserved of the
State.

There are several points to be remembered in this connection. First, the
colonists have had many dealings with the Boers. They knew their
strength, they feared their animosity. But they have never for one
moment lost sight of their obligations as a British colony. Their
loyalty has been splendid. From the very beginning they warned the
Imperial Government that their territories would be invaded. Throughout
the course of the long negotiations they knew that if war should come,
on them would fall the first fury of the storm. Nevertheless, they
courageously supported and acclaimed the action of the Ministry. Now at
last there is war. It means a good deal to all of us, but more than to
any it comes home to the Natalian. He is invaded; his cattle have been
seized by the Boer; his towns are shelled or captured; the most powerful
force on which he relies for protection is isolated in Ladysmith; his
capital is being loopholed and entrenched; Newcastle has been abandoned,
Colenso has fallen, Estcourt is threatened; the possibility that the
whole province will be overrun stares him in the face. From the
beginning he asked for protection. From the beginning he was promised
complete protection; but scarcely a word of complaint is heard. The
townsfolk are calm and orderly, the Press dignified and sober. The men
capable of bearing arms have responded nobly. Boys of sixteen march with
men of fifty to war--to no light easy war. All the volunteers are in the
field bearing their full share of the fighting like men. Nor are the
Outlanders backward in their own quarrel. The Imperial Light Infantry is
eagerly filled. The Imperial Light Horse can find no more vacancies,
not even for those who will serve without pay.

I talked with a wounded Gordon Highlander--one of those who dashed
across the famous causeway of Dargai and breasted the still more
glorious slope of Elandslaagte.

'We had the Imperial Horse with us,' he said. 'They're the best I've
ever seen.'

The casualty lists tell the same tale. To storm the hill the regiment
dismounted less than two hundred men. They reached the top unchecked,
their Colonel, their Adjutant, Lieutenant Barnes, seven other officers,
and upwards of sixty men killed or wounded--nearly 30 per cent. Many of
this corps came from Johannesburg. After this who will dare call
Outlanders cowards? Not that it will ever matter again.

Viewed in quieter days, the patient, trustful attitude of this colony of
Natal will impress the historian. The devotion of its people to their
Sovereign and to their motherland should endear them to all good
Englishmen, and win them general respect and sympathy; and full
indemnity to all individual colonists who have suffered loss must stand
as an Imperial debt of honour.




CHAPTER V

A CRUISE IN THE ARMOURED TRAIN


Estcourt: November 9, 1899.

How many more letters shall I write you from an unsatisfactory address?
Sir George White's Headquarters are scarcely forty miles away, but
between them and Estcourt stretches the hostile army. Whether it may be
possible or wise to try to pass the lines of investment is a question
which I cannot yet decide; and meanwhile I wait here at the nearest post
collecting such information as dribbles through native channels, and
hoping that early events may clear the road. To wait is often weary
work--but even at this exciting time I come to a standstill at length
with a distinct feeling of relief. The last month has been passed in
continual travel. The fading, confused faces at Waterloo as the train
swept along the platform; the cheering crowds at Southampton; the
rolling decks of the 'Dunottar Castle;' the suspense, the excitement of
first news; a brief day's scurry at Cape Town; the journey to East
London by the last train to pass along the frontier; the tumultuous
voyage in the 'Umzimvubu' amid so great a gale that but for the Royal
Mail the skipper would have put back to port; on without a check to
Pietermaritzburg, and thence, since the need seemed urgent and the
traffic slow, by special train here--all moving, restless pictures--and
here at last--a pause.

Let us review the situation. On Wednesday last, on November 1, the Boer
lines of investment drew round Ladysmith. On Thursday the last train
passed down the railway under the fire of artillery. That night the line
was cut about four miles north of Colenso. Telegraphic communication
also ceased. On Friday Colenso was itself attacked. A heavy gun came
into action from the hills which dominate the town, and the slender
garrison of infantry volunteers and naval brigade evacuated in a hurry,
and, covered to some extent by the armoured train, fell back on
Estcourt.

Estcourt is a South African town--that is to say, it is a collection of
about three hundred detached stone or corrugated iron houses, nearly all
one-storied, arranged along two broad streets--for space is
plentiful--or straggling away towards the country. The little place lies
in a cup of the hills, which rise in green undulations on all sides. For
this reason it will be a very difficult place to defend if the invaders
should come upon it. It is, besides, of mean and insignificant aspect;
but, like all these towns in Natal, it is the centre of a large
agricultural district, at once the market and the storehouse of dozens
of prosperous farms scattered about the country, and consequently it
possesses more importance than the passing stranger would imagine.
Indeed, it was a surprise to find on entering the shops how great a
variety and quantity of goods these unpretentious shanties contained.

Estcourt now calls itself 'The Front.' There is another front forty
miles away, but that is ringed about by the enemy, and since we live in
expectation of attack, with no one but the Boers beyond the outpost
line, Estcourt considers that its claim is just, Colonel Wolfe Murray,
the officer who commands the lines of communication of the Natal Field
Force, hastened up as soon as the news of the attack on Colenso was
received to make preparation to check the enemy's advance.

The force at his disposal is not, however, large--two British
battalions--the Dublin Fusiliers, who fought at Glencoe, and were
hurried out of Ladysmith to strengthen the communications when it became
evident that a blockade impended, and the Border Regiment from Malta, a
squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, 300 Natal volunteers with 25
cyclists, and a volunteer battery of nine-pounder guns--perhaps 2,000
men in all. With so few it would be quite impossible to hold the long
line of hills necessary for the protection of the town, but a position
has been selected and fortified, where the troops can maintain
themselves--at any rate for several days. But the confidence of the
military authorities in the strength of Estcourt may be gauged by the
frantic efforts they are making to strengthen Pietermaritzburg,
seventy-six miles, and even Durban, one hundred and thirty miles further
back, by earthworks and naval guns. 'The Boers invade Natal!' exclaims
Mr. Labouchere in the number of 'Truth' current out here. 'As likely
that the Chinese army should invade London.' But he is not the only
false prophet.

It seems, however, certain that a considerable force will be moved here
soon to restore the situation and to relieve Ladysmith. Meanwhile we
wait, not without anxiety or impatience. The Imperial Horse, a few
mounted infantry, the volunteer cyclists, and the armoured train, patrol
daily towards Colenso and the north, always expecting to see the
approaching Boer commandos. Yesterday I travelled with the armoured
train. This armoured train is a very puny specimen, having neither gun
nor Maxims, with no roof to its trucks and no shutters to its
loopholes, and being in every way inferior to the powerful machines I
saw working along the southern frontier. Nevertheless it is a useful
means of reconnaissance, nor is a journey in it devoid of interest. An
armoured train! The very name sounds strange; a locomotive disguised as
a knight-errant; the agent of civilisation in the habiliments of
chivalry. Mr. Morley attired as Sir Lancelot would seem scarcely more
incongruous. The possibilities of attack added to the keenness of the
experience. We started at one o'clock. A company of the Dublin Fusiliers
formed the garrison. Half were in the car in front of the engine, half
in that behind. Three empty trucks, with a platelaying gang and spare
rails to mend the line, followed. The country between Estcourt and
Colenso is open, undulating, and grassy. The stations, which occur every
four or five miles, are hamlets consisting of half a dozen corrugated
iron houses, and perhaps a score of blue gum trees. These little specks
of habitation are almost the only marked feature of the landscape,
which on all sides spreads in pleasant but monotonous slopes of green.
The train maintained a good speed; and, though it stopped repeatedly to
question Kaffirs or country folk, and to communicate with the cyclists
and other patrols who were scouring the country on the flanks, reached
Chieveley, five miles from Colenso, by about three o'clock; and from
here the Ladysmith balloon, a brown speck floating above and beyond the
distant hills, was plainly visible.

Beyond Chieveley it was necessary to observe more caution. The speed was
reduced--the engine walked warily. The railway officials scanned the
track, and often before a culvert or bridge was traversed we disembarked
and examined it from the ground. At other times long halts were made
while the officers swept the horizon and the distant hills with field
glasses and telescopes. But the country was clear and the line
undamaged, and we continued our slow advance. Presently Colenso came
into view--a hundred tin-pot houses under the high hills to the
northward. We inspected it deliberately. On a mound beyond the village
rose the outline of the sandbag fort constructed by the Naval Brigade.
The flagstaff, without the flag, still stood up boldly. But, so far as
we could tell, the whole place was deserted.

There followed a discussion. Perhaps the Boers were lying in wait for
the armoured train; perhaps they had trained a gun on some telegraph
post, and would fire the moment the engine passed it; or perhaps, again,
they were even now breaking the line behind us. Some Kaffirs approached
respectfully, saluting. A Natal Volunteer--one of the cyclists--came
forward to interrogate. He was an intelligent little man, with a
Martini-Metford rifle, a large pair of field glasses, a dainty pair of
grey skin cycling shoes, and a slouch hat. He questioned the natives,
and reported their answers. The Kaffirs said that the Dutchmen were
assuredly in the neighbourhood. They had been seen only that morning.
'How many?' The reply was vague--twelve, or seventeen, or one thousand;
also they had a gun--or five guns--mounted in the old fort, or on the
platform of the station, or on the hill behind the town. At daylight
they had shelled Colenso. 'But why,' we asked, 'should they shell
Colenso?' Evidently to make sure of the range of some telegraph post.
'It only takes one shell to do the trick with the engine,' said the
captain who commanded. 'Got to hit us first, though,' he added. 'Well,
let's get a little bit nearer.'

The electric bell rang three times, and we crept forward--halted--looked
around, forward again--halt again--another look round; and so, yard by
yard, we approached Colenso. Half a mile away we stopped finally. The
officer, taking a sergeant with him, went on towards the village on
foot. I followed. We soon reached the trenches that had been made by the
British troops before they evacuated the place. 'Awful rot giving this
place up,' said the officer. 'These lines took us a week to dig.' From
here Colenso lay exposed about two hundred yards away--a silent,
desolate village. The streets were littered with the belongings of the
inhabitants. Two or three houses had been burned. A dead horse lay in
the road, his four legs sticking stiffly up in the air, his belly
swollen. The whole place had evidently been ransacked and plundered by
the Boers and the Kaffirs. A few natives loitered near the far end of
the street, and one, alarmed at the aspect of the train, waved a white
rag on a stick steadily to and fro. But no Dutchmen were to be seen. We
made our way back to the railway line and struck it at the spot where it
was cut. Two lengths of rails had been lifted up, and, with the sleepers
attached to them, flung over the embankment. The broken telegraph wires
trailed untidily on the ground. Several of the posts were twisted. But
the bridge across the Tugela was uninjured, and the damage to the lines
was such as could be easily repaired. The Boers realise the advantage of
the railway. At this moment, with their trains all labelled 'To Durban,'
they are drawing supplies along it from Pretoria to within six miles of
Ladysmith. They had resolved to use it in their further advance, and
their confidence in the ultimate issue is shown by the care with which
they avoid seriously damaging the permanent way. We had learned all that
there was to learn--where the line was broken, that the village was
deserted, that the bridge was safe, and we made haste to rejoin the
train. Then the engine was reversed, and we withdrew out of range of the
hills beyond Colenso at full speed--and some said that the Boers did not
fire because they hoped to draw us nearer, and others that there were no
Boers within ten miles.

On the way back I talked with the volunteer. He was friendly and
communicative. 'Durban Light Infantry,' he said; 'that's my corps. I'm a
builder myself by trade--nine men under me. But I had to send them all
away when I was called out. I don't know how I'm going on when I get
back after it's over. Oh, I'm glad to come. I wish I was in Ladysmith.
You see these Dutchmen have come quite far enough into our country. The
Imperial Government promised us protection. You've seen what protection
Colenso got; Dundee and Newcastle, just the same; I don't doubt they've
tried their best, and I don't blame them; but we want help here badly. I
don't hold with a man crying out for help unless he makes a start
himself, so I came out. I'm a cyclist. I've got eight medals at home for
cycling.'

'How will you like a new one--with the Queen's head on it?'

His eye brightened.

'Ah,' he said, 'I should treasure that more than all the other
eight--even more than the twenty-mile championship one.'

So we rattled back to Estcourt through the twilight; and the long car,
crowded with brown-clad soldiers who sprawled smoking on the floor or
lounged against the sides, the rows of loopholes along the iron walls,
the black smoke of the engine bulging overhead, the sense of headlong
motion, and the atmosphere of war made the volunteer seem perhaps more
than he was; and I thought him a true and valiant man, who had come
forward in time of trouble quietly and soberly to bear his part in
warfare, and who was ready, if necessary, to surrender his humble life
in honourably sustaining the quarrel of the State. Nor do I care to
correct the impression now.




CHAPTER VI

DISTANT GUNS


Estcourt: November 10, 1899.

When I awoke yesterday morning there was a strange tremor in the air. A
gang of platelayers and navvies were making a new siding by the station,
and sounds of hammering also came from the engine shed. But this tremor
made itself felt above these and all the other noises of a waking camp,
a silent thudding, a vibration which scarcely seemed to constitute what
is called sound, yet which left an intense impression on the ear. I went
outside the tent to listen. Morning had just broken, and the air was
still and clear. What little wind there was came from the northwards,
from the direction of Ladysmith, and I knew that it carried to Estcourt
the sound of distant cannon. When once the sounds had been localised it
was possible to examine them more carefully. There were two kinds of
reports: one almost a boom, the explosion evidently of some very heavy
piece of ordnance; the other only a penetrating whisper, that of
ordinary field guns. A heavy cannonade was proceeding. The smaller
pieces fired at brief intervals, sometimes three or four shots followed
in quick succession. Every few minutes the heavier gun or guns
intervened. What was happening? We could only try to guess, nor do we
yet know whether our guesses were right. It seems to me, however, that
Sir George White must have made an attack at dawn on some persecuting
Boer battery, and so brought on a general action.

Later in the day we rode out to find some nearer listening point. The
whole force was making a reconnaissance towards Colenso, partly for
reasons of security, partly to exercise the horses and men. Galloping
over the beautiful grassy hills to the north of the town, I soon reached
a spot whence the column could be seen. First of all came a cyclist--a
Natal volunteer pedalling leisurely along with his rifle slung across
his back--then two more, then about twenty. Next, after an interval of a
quarter of a mile, rode the cavalry--the squadron of the Imperial Light
Horse, sixty Natal Carabineers, a company of mounted infantry, and about
forty of the Natal mounted police. That is the total cavalry force in
Natal, all the rest is bottled up in Ladysmith, and scarcely three
hundred horsemen are available for the defence of the colony against a
hostile army entirely composed of mounted men. Small were their numbers,
but the quality was good. The Imperial Light Horse have shown their
courage, and have only to display their discipline to equal advantage to
be considered first-class soldiers. The Natal Carabineers are excellent
volunteer cavalry: the police an alert and reliable troop. After the
horse the foot: the Dublin Fusiliers wound up the hill like a long brown
snake. This is a fine regiment, which distinguished itself at Glencoe,
and have since impressed all who have been brought in contact with it.
The cheery faces of the Irishmen wore a proud and confident expression.
They had seen war. The other battalion--the Border Regiment--had yet
their spurs to win. The volunteer battery was sandwiched between the two
British battalions, and the rear of the column was brought up by the
Durban volunteers. The force, when it had thus passed in review, looked
painfully small, and this impression was aggravated by the knowledge of
all that depended on it.

A high, flat-topped hill to the north-west promised a wide field of
vision and a nearer listening point for the Ladysmith cannonade, which
still throbbed and thudded dully. With my two companions I rode towards
it, and after an hour's climb reached the summit. The land lay spread
before us like a map. Estcourt, indeed, was hidden by its engulfing
hills, but Colenso was plainly visible, and the tin roofs of the houses
showed in squares and oblongs of pale blue against the brown background
of the mountain. Far away to the east the dark serrated range of the
Drakensberg rose in a mighty wall. But it was not on these features
that we turned our glasses. To the right of Colenso the hills were lower
and more broken, and the country behind, though misty and indistinct,
was exposed to view. First there was a region of low rocky hills rising
in strange confusion and falling away on the further side to a hollow.
Above this extensive depression clouds of smoke from grass and other
fires hung and drifted, like steam over a cauldron. At the
bottom--invisible in spite of our great elevation--stood the town and
camp of Ladysmith. Westward rose the long, black, hog-backed outline of
Bulwana Hill, and while we watched intently the ghost of a flash stabbed
its side and a white patch sprang into existence, spread thinner, and
vanished away. 'Long Tom' was at his business.

The owner of the nearest farm joined us while we were thus engaged--a
tall, red-bearded man of grave and intelligent mien. 'They've had heavy
fighting this morning,' he said. 'Not since Monday week' (the Black
Monday of the war) 'has there been such firing. But they are nearly
finished now for the day.' Absorbed by the distant drama, all the more
thrilling since its meaning was doubtful and mysterious, we had shown
ourselves against the sky-line, and our conversation was now suddenly
interrupted. Over the crest of the hill to the rear, two horsemen
trotted swiftly into view. A hundred yards away to the left three or
four more were dismounting among the rocks. Three other figures appeared
on the other side. We were surrounded--but by the Natal Carabineers.
'Got you, I think,' said the sergeant, who now arrived. 'Will you kindly
tell us all about who you are?' We introduced ourselves as President
Kruger and General Joubert, and presented the farmer as Mr. Schreiner,
who had come to a secret conference, and having produced our passes,
satisfied the patrol that we were not eligible for capture. The sergeant
looked disappointed. 'It took us half an hour to stalk you, but if you
had only been Dutchmen we'd have had you fixed up properly.' Indeed, the
whole manoeuvre had been neatly and cleverly executed, and showed the
smartness and efficiency of these irregular forces in all matters of
scouting and reconnaissance. The patrol was then appeased by being
photographed 'for the London papers,' and we hastened to accept the
farmer's invitation to lunch. 'Only plain fare,' said he, 'but perhaps
you are used to roughing it.'

The farm stood in a sheltered angle of the hill at no great distance
from its summit. It was a good-sized house, with stone walls and a
corrugated iron roof. A few sheds and outhouses surrounded it, four or
five blue gums afforded a little shade from the sun and a little relief
to the grassy smoothness of the landscape. Two women met us at the door,
one the wife, the other, I think, the sister of our host. Neither was
young, but their smiling faces showed the invigorating effects of this
delicious air. 'These are anxious times,' said the older; 'we hear the
cannonading every morning at breakfast. What will come of it all?' Over
a most excellent luncheon we discussed many things with these kind
people, and spoke of how the nation was this time resolved to make an
end of the long quarrel with the Boers, so that there should be no more
uncertainty and alarm among loyal subjects of the Queen. 'We have always
known,' said the farmer, 'that it must end in war, and I cannot say I am
sorry it has come at last. But it falls heavily on us. I am the only man
for twenty miles who has not left his farm. Of course we are defenceless
here. Any day the Dutchmen may come. They wouldn't kill us, but they
would burn or plunder everything, and it's all I've got in the world.
Fifteen years have I worked at this place, and I said to myself we may
as well stay and face it out, whatever happens.' Indeed, it was an
anxious time for such a man. He had bought the ground, built the house,
reclaimed waste tracts, enriched the land with corn and cattle, sunk all
his capital in the enterprise, and backed it with the best energies of
his life. Now everything might be wrecked in an hour by a wandering Boer
patrol. And this was happening to a loyal and law-abiding British
subject more than a hundred miles within the frontiers of her Majesty's
dominions! Now I felt the bitter need for soldiers--thousands of
soldiers--so that such a man as this might be assured. With what pride
and joy could one have said: 'Work on, the fruits of your industry are
safe. Under the strong arm of the Imperial Government your home shall be
secure, and if perchance you suffer in the disputes of the Empire the
public wealth shall restore your private losses.' But when I recalled
the scanty force which alone kept the field, and stood between the enemy
and the rest of Natal, I knew the first would be an empty boast, and,
remembering what had happened on other occasions, I thought the second
might prove a barren promise.

We started on our long ride home, for the afternoon was wearing away and
picket lines are dangerous at dusk. The military situation is without
doubt at this moment most grave and critical. We have been at war three
weeks. The army that was to have defended Natal, and was indeed expected
to repulse the invaders with terrible loss, is blockaded and bombarded
in its fortified camp. At nearly every point along the circle of the
frontiers the Boers have advanced and the British retreated. Wherever we
have stood we have been surrounded. The losses in the fighting have not
been unequal--nor, considering the numbers engaged and the weapons
employed, have they been very severe. But the Boers hold more than 1,200
unwounded British prisoners, a number that bears a disgraceful
proportion to the casualty lists, and a very unsatisfactory relation to
the number of Dutchmen that we have taken. All this is mainly the result
of being unready. That we are unready is largely due to those in England
who have endeavoured by every means in their power to hamper and
obstruct the Government, who have scoffed at the possibility of the
Boers becoming the aggressors, and who have represented every precaution
for the defence of the colonies as a deliberate provocation to the
Transvaal State. It is also due to an extraordinary under-estimation of
the strength of the Boers. These military republics have been for ten
years cherishing vast ambitions, and for five years, enriched by the
gold mines, they have been arming and preparing for the struggle. They
have neglected nothing, and it is a very remarkable fact that these
ignorant peasant communities have had the wisdom and the enterprise to
possess themselves of good advisers, and to utilise the best expert
opinion in all matters of armament and war.

Their artillery is inferior in numbers, but in nothing else, to ours.
Yesterday I visited Colenso in the armoured train. In one of the
deserted British-built redoubts I found two boxes of shrapnel shells and
charges. The Boers had not troubled to touch them. Their guns were of a
later pattern, and fired powder and shell made up together like a great
rifle cartridge. The combination, made for the first time in the history
of war, of heavy artillery and swarms of mounted infantry is formidable
and effective. The enduring courage and confident spirit of the enemy
must also excite surprise. In short, we have grossly underrated their
fighting powers. Most people in England--I, among them--thought that
the Boer ultimatum was an act of despair, that the Dutch would make one
fight for their honour, and, once defeated, would accept the inevitable.
All I have heard and whatever I have seen out here contradict these
false ideas. Anger, hatred, and the consciousness of military power
impelled, the Boers to war. They would rather have fought at their own
time--a year or two later--when their preparations were still further
advanced, and when the British were, perhaps, involved in other
quarters. But, after all, the moment was ripe. Nearly everything was
ready, and the whole people sprang to arms with alacrity, firmly
believing that they would drive the British into the sea. To that
opinion they still adhere. I do not myself share it; but it cannot be
denied that it seems less absurd to-day than it did before a shot had
been fired.

To return to Estcourt. Here we are passing through a most dangerous
period. The garrison is utterly insufficient to resist the Boers; the
position wholly indefensible. Indeed, we exist here on sufferance. If
the enemy attack, the troops must fall back on Pietermaritzburg, if for
no other reason because they are the only force available for the
defence of the strong lines now being formed around the chief town.
There are so few cavalry outside Ladysmith that the Boers could raid in
all directions. All this will have been changed long before this letter
reaches you, or I should not send it, but as I write the situation is
saved only by what seems to me the over-confidence of the enemy. They
are concentrating all their efforts on Ladysmith, and evidently hope to
compel its surrender. It may, however, be said with absolute certainty
that the place can hold out for a month at the least. How, then, could
the Boers obtain the necessary time to reduce it? The reinforcements are
on the seas. The railway works regularly with the coast. Even now
sidings are being constructed and troop trains prepared. It is with all
this that they should interfere, and they are perfectly competent to do
so. They could compel us to retreat on Pietermaritzburg, they could
tear up the railway, they could blow up the bridges; and by all these
means they could delay the arrival of a relieving army, and so have a
longer time to worry Ladysmith, and a better chance of making it a
second Saratoga. Since Saturday last that has been our fear. Nearly a
week has passed and nothing has happened. The chance of the Boers is
fleeting; the transports approach the land; scarcely forty-eight hours
remain. Yet, as I write, they have done nothing. Why? To some extent I
think they have been influenced by the fear of the Tugela River rising
behind their raiding parties, and cutting their line of retreat; to some
extent by the serene and confident way in which General Wolfe Murray,
placed in a most trying position, has handled his force and maintained
by frequent reconnaissance and a determined attitude the appearance of
actual strength; but when all has been said on these grounds, the fact
will remain that the enemy have not destroyed the railway because they
do not fear the reinforcements that are coming, because they do not
believe that many will come, and because they are sure that, however
many may come, they will defeat them. To this end they preserve the
line, and watch the bridges as carefully as we do. It is by the railway
that they are to be supplied in their march through Natal to the sea.
After what they have accomplished it would be foolish to laugh at any of
their ambitions, however wicked and extravagant these may be; but it
appears to most military critics at this moment that they have committed
a serious strategic error, and have thrown away the chance they had
almost won. How much that error will cost them will depend on the
operations of the relieving force, which I shall hope to chronicle as
fully as possible in future letters.




CHAPTER VII

THE FATE OF THE ARMOURED TRAIN


Pretoria: November 20, 1899.

Now I perceive that I was foolish to choose in advance a definite title
for these letters and to think that it could continue to be appropriate
for any length of time. In the strong stream of war the swimmer is
swirled helplessly about hither and thither by the waves, and he can by
no means tell where he will come to land, or, indeed, that he may not be
overwhelmed in the flood. A week ago I described to you a reconnoitring
expedition in the Estcourt armoured train, and I pointed out the many
defects in the construction and the great dangers in the employment of
that forlorn military machine. So patent were these to all who concerned
themselves in the matter that the train was nicknamed in the camp
'Wilson's death trap.'

On Tuesday, the 14th, the mounted infantry patrols reported that the
Boers in small parties were approaching Estcourt from the directions of
Weenen and Colenso, and Colonel Long made a reconnaissance in force to
ascertain what strength lay behind the advanced scouts. The
reconnaissance, which was marked only by an exchange of shots between
the patrols, revealed little, but it was generally believed that a
considerable portion of the army investing Ladysmith was moving, or was
about to move, southwards to attack Estcourt, and endeavour to strike
Pietermaritzburg. The movement that we had awaited for ten days
impended. Accordingly certain military preparations, which I need not
now specify, were made to guard against all contingencies, and at
daylight on Wednesday morning another spray of patrols was flung out
towards the north and north-west, and the Estcourt armoured train was
ordered to reconnoitre towards Chieveley. The train was composed as
follows: an ordinary truck, in which was a 7-pounder muzzle-loading gun,
served by four sailors from the 'Tartar;' an armoured car fitted with
loopholes and held by three sections of a company of the Dublin
Fusiliers; the engine and tender, two more armoured cars containing the
fourth section of the Fusilier company, one company of the Durban Light
Infantry (volunteers), and a small civilian breakdown gang; lastly,
another ordinary truck with the tools and materials for repairing the
road; in all five wagons, the locomotive, one small gun, and 120 men.
Captain Haldane, D.S.O., whom I had formerly known on Sir William
Lockhart's staff in the Tirah Expedition, and who was lately recovered
from his wound at Elandslaagte, commanded.

We started at half-past five and, observing all the usual precautions,
reached Frere Station in about an hour. Here a small patrol of the Natal
police reported that there were no enemy within the next few miles, and
that all seemed quiet in the neighbourhood. It was the silence before
the storm. Captain Haldane decided to push on cautiously as far as
Chieveley, near which place an extensive view of the country could be
obtained. Not a sign of the Boers could be seen. The rolling grassy
country looked as peaceful and deserted as on former occasions, and we
little thought that behind the green undulations scarcely three miles
away the leading commandos of a powerful force were riding swiftly
forward on their invading path.

All was clear as far as Chieveley, but as the train reached the station
I saw about a hundred Boer horsemen cantering southwards about a mile
from the railway. Beyond Chieveley a long hill was lined with a row of
black spots, showing that our further advance would be disputed. The
telegraphist who accompanied the train wired back to Estcourt reporting
our safe arrival, and that parties of Boers were to be seen at no great
distance, and Colonel Long replied by ordering the train to return to
Frere and remain there in observation during the day, watching its safe
retreat at nightfall. We proceeded to obey, and were about a mile and
three-quarters from Frere when on rounding a corner we saw that a hill
which commanded the line at a distance of 600 yards was occupied by the
enemy. So after all there would be a fight, for we could not pass this
point without coming under fire. The four sailors loaded their gun--an
antiquated toy--the soldiers charged their magazines, and the train,
which was now in the reverse of the order in which it had started moved,
slowly towards the hill.

The moment approached: but no one was much concerned, for the cars were
proof against rifle fire, and this ridge could at the worst be occupied
only by some daring patrol of perhaps a score of men. 'Besides,' we said
to ourselves, 'they little think we have a gun on board. That will be a
nice surprise.'

The Boers held their fire until the train reached that part of the track
nearest to their position. Standing on a box in the rear armoured truck
I had an excellent view-through my glasses. The long brown rattling
serpent with the rifles bristling from its spotted sides crawled closer
to the rocky hillock on which the scattered black figures of the enemy
showed clearly. Suddenly three wheeled things appeared on the crest, and
within a second a bright flash of light--like a heliograph, but much
yellower--opened and shut ten or twelve times. Then two much larger
flashes; no smoke nor yet any sound, and a bustle and stir among the
little figures. So much for the hill. Immediately over the rear truck of
the train a huge white ball of smoke sprang into being and tore out into
a cone like a comet. Then came, the explosions of the near guns and the
nearer shell. The iron sides of the truck tanged with a patter of
bullets. There was a crash from the front of the train and half a dozen
sharp reports. The Boers had opened fire on us at 600 yards with two
large field guns, a Maxim firing small shells in a stream, and from
riflemen lying on the ridge. I got down from my box into the cover of
the armoured sides of the car without forming any clear thought. Equally
involuntarily, it seems that the driver put on full steam, as the enemy
had intended. The train leapt forward, ran the gauntlet of the guns,
which now filled the air with explosions, swung round the curve of the
hill, ran down a steep gradient, and dashed into a huge stone which
awaited it on the line at a convenient spot.

To those who were in the rear truck there was only a tremendous shock, a
tremendous crash, and a sudden full stop. What happened to the trucks in
front of the engine is more interesting. The first, which contained the
materials and tools of the breakdown gang and the guard who was watching
the line, was flung into the air and fell bottom upwards on the
embankment. (I do not know what befell the guard, but it seems probable
that he was killed.) The next, an armoured car crowded with the Durban
Light Infantry, was carried on twenty yards and thrown over on its side,
scattering its occupants in a shower on the ground. The third wedged
itself across the track, half on and half off the rails. The rest of the
train kept to the metals.

We were not long left in the comparative peace and safety of a railway
accident. The Boer guns, swiftly changing their position, re-opened
from a distance of 1,300 yards before anyone had got out of the stage of
exclamations. The tapping rifle fire spread along the hillside, until it
encircled the wreckage on three sides, and a third field gun came into
action from some high ground on the opposite side of the line.

To all of this our own poor little gun endeavoured to reply, and the
sailors, though exposed in an open truck, succeeded in letting off three
rounds before the barrel was struck by a shell, and the trunnions, being
smashed, fell altogether out of the carriage.

The armoured truck gave some protection from the bullets, but since any
direct shell must pierce it like paper and kill everyone, it seemed
almost safer outside, and, wishing to see the extent and nature of the
damage, I clambered over the iron shield, and, dropping to the ground,
ran along the line to the front of the train. As I passed the engine
another shrapnel shell burst immediately, as it seemed, overhead,
hurling its contents with a rasping rush through the air. The driver at
once sprang out of the cab and ran to the shelter of the overturned
trucks. His face was cut open by a splinter, and he complained in bitter
futile indignation. He was a civilian. What did they think he was paid
for? To be killed by bombshells? Not he. He would not stay another
minute. It looked as if his excitement and misery--he was dazed by the
blow on his head--would prevent him from working the engine further, and
as only he understood the machinery all chances of escape seemed to be
cut off. Yet when I told this man that if he continued to stay at his
post he would be mentioned for distinguished gallantry in action, he
pulled himself together, wiped the blood off his face, climbed back into
the cab of his engine, and thereafter during the one-sided combat did
his duty bravely and faithfully--so strong is the desire for honour and
repute in the human breast.

I reached the overturned portion of the train uninjured. The volunteers
who, though severely shaken, were mostly unhurt, were lying down under
such cover as the damaged cars and the gutters of the railway line
afforded. It was a very grievous sight to see these citizen soldiers,
most of whom were the fathers of families, in such a perilous position.
They bore themselves well, though greatly troubled, and their major,
whose name I have not learned, directed their fire on the enemy; but
since these, lying behind the crests of the surrounding hills, were
almost invisible I did not expect that it would be very effective.

Having seen this much, I ran along the train to the rear armoured truck
and told Captain Haldane that in my opinion the line might be cleared.
We then agreed that he with musketry should keep the enemy's artillery
from destroying us, and that I should try to throw the wreckage off the
line, so that the engine and the two cars which still remained on the
rails might escape.

I am convinced that this arrangement gave us the best possible chance of
safety, though at the time it was made the position appeared quite
hopeless.

Accordingly Haldane and his Fusiliers began to fire through their
loopholes at the Boer artillery, and, as the enemy afterwards admitted,
actually disturbed their aim considerably. During the time that these
men were firing from the truck four shells passed through the armour,
but luckily not one exploded until it had passed out on the further
side. Many shells also struck and burst on the outside of their shields,
and these knocked all the soldiers on their backs with the concussion.
Nevertheless a well-directed fire was maintained without cessation.

The task of clearing the line would not, perhaps, in ordinary
circumstances have been a very difficult one. But the breakdown gang and
their tools were scattered to the winds, and several had fled along the
track or across the fields. Moreover, the enemy's artillery fire was
pitiless, continuous, and distracting. The affair had, however, to be
carried through.

The first thing to be done was to detach the truck half off the rails
from the one completely so. To do this the engine had to be moved to
slacken the strain on the twisted couplings. When these had been
released, the next step was to drag the partly derailed truck backwards
along the line until it was clear of the other wreckage, and then to
throw it bodily off the rails. This may seem very simple, but the dead
weight of the iron truck half on the sleepers was enormous, and the
engine wheels skidded vainly several times before any hauling power was
obtained. At last the truck was drawn sufficiently far back, and I
called for volunteers to overturn it from the side while the engine
pushed it from the end. It was very evident that these men would be
exposed to considerable danger. Twenty were called for, and there was an
immediate response. But only nine, including the major of volunteers and
four or five of the Dublin Fusiliers, actually stepped out into the
open. The attempt was nevertheless successful. The truck heeled further
over under their pushing, and, the engine giving a shove at the right
moment, it fell off the line and the track was clear. Safety and success
appeared in sight together, but disappointment overtook them.

The engine was about six inches wider than the tender, and the corner of
its footplate would not pass the corner of the newly overturned truck.
It did not seem safe to push very hard, lest the engine should itself be
derailed. So time after time the engine moved back a yard or two and
shoved forward at the obstruction, and each time moved it a little. But
soon it was evident that complications had set in. The newly derailed
truck became jammed with that originally off the line, and the more the
engine pushed the greater became the block. Volunteers were again called
on to assist, but though seven men, two of whom, I think, were wounded,
did their best, the attempt was a failure.

Perseverance, however, is a virtue. If the trucks only jammed the
tighter for the forward pushing they might be loosened by pulling
backwards. Now, however, a new difficulty arose. The coupling chains of
the engine would not reach by five or six inches those of the overturned
truck. Search was made for a spare link. By a solitary gleam of good
luck one was found. The engine hauled at the wreckage, and before the
chains parted pulled it about a yard backwards. Now, certainly, the line
was clear at last. But again the corner of the footplate jammed with the
corner of the truck, and again we came to a jarring halt.

I have had, in the last four years, the advantage, if it be an
advantage, of many strange and varied experiences, from which the
student of realities might draw profit and instruction. But nothing was
so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle among these clanging, rending
iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of the shells and the
artillery, the noise of the projectiles striking the cars, the hiss as
they passed in the air, the grunting and puffing of the engine--poor,
tortured thing, hammered by at least a dozen shells, any one of which,
by penetrating the boiler, might have made an end of all--the
expectation of destruction as a matter of course, the realization of
powerlessness, and the alternations of hope and despair--all this for
seventy minutes by the clock with only four inches of twisted iron work
to make the difference between danger, captivity, and shame on the one
hand--safety, freedom, and triumph on the other.

Nothing remained but to continue pounding at the obstructing corner in
the hopes that the iron work would gradually be twisted and torn, and
thus give free passage. As we pounded so did the enemy. I adjured the
driver to be patient and to push gently, for it did not seem right to
imperil the slender chance of escape by running the risk of throwing the
engine off the line. But after a dozen pushes had been given with
apparently little result a shell struck the front of the engine, setting
fire to the woodwork, and he thereupon turned on more steam, and with
considerable momentum we struck the obstacle once more. There was a
grinding crash; the engine staggered, checked, shore forward again,
until with a clanging, tearing sound it broke past the point of
interception, and nothing but the smooth line lay between us and home.

Brilliant success now seemed won, for I thought that the rear and gun
trucks were following the locomotive, and that all might squeeze into
them, and so make an honourable escape. But the longed-for cup was
dashed aside. Looking backward, I saw that the couplings had parted or
had been severed by a shell, and that the trucks still lay on the wrong
side of the obstruction, separated by it from the engine. No one dared
to risk imprisoning the engine again by making it go back for the
trucks, so an attempt was made to drag the trucks up to the engine.
Owing chiefly to the fire of the enemy this failed completely, and
Captain Haldane determined to be content with saving the locomotive. He
accordingly permitted the driver to retire along the line slowly, so
that the infantry might get as much shelter from the ironwork of the
engine as possible, and the further idea was to get into some houses
near the station, about 800 yards away, and there hold out while the
engine went for assistance.

As many wounded as possible were piled on to the engine, standing in
the cab, lying on the tender, or clinging to the cowcatcher. And all
this time the shells fell into the wet earth throwing up white clouds,
burst with terrifying detonations overhead, or actually struck the
engine and the iron wreckage. Besides the three field-guns, which proved
to be 15-pounders, the shell-firing Maxim continued its work, and its
little shells, discharged with an ugly thud, thud, thud, exploded with
startling bangs on all sides. One I remember struck the footplate of the
engine scarcely a yard from my face, lit up into a bright yellow flash,
and left me wondering why I was still alive. Another hit the coals in
the tender, hurling a black shower into the air. A third--this also I
saw--struck the arm of a private in the Dublin Fusiliers. The whole arm
was smashed to a horrid pulp--bones, muscle, blood, and uniform all
mixed together. At the bottom hung the hand, unhurt, but swelled
instantly to three times its ordinary size. The engine was soon crowded
and began to steam homewards--a mournful, sorely battered
locomotive--with the woodwork of the firebox in flames and the water
spouting from its pierced tanks. The infantrymen straggled along beside
it at the double.

Seeing the engine escaping the Boers increased their fire, and the
troops, hitherto somewhat protected by the iron trucks, began to suffer.
The major of volunteers fell, shot through the thigh. Here and there men
dropped on the ground, several screamed--this is very rare in war--and
cried for help. About a quarter of the force was very soon killed or
wounded. The shells which pursued the retreating soldiers scattered them
all along the track. Order and control vanished. The engine, increasing
its pace, drew out from the thin crowd of fugitives and was soon in
safety. The infantry continued to run down the line in the direction of
the houses, and, in spite of their disorder, I honestly consider that
they were capable of making a further resistance when some shelter
should be reached. But at this moment one of those miserable
incidents--much too frequent in this war--occurred.

A private soldier who was wounded, in direct disobedience of the
positive orders that no surrender was to be made, took it on himself to
wave a pocket-handkerchief. The Boers immediately ceased firing, and
with equal daring and humanity a dozen horsemen galloped from the hills
into the scattered fugitives, scarcely any of whom had seen the white
flag, and several of whom were still firing, and called loudly on them
to surrender. Most of the soldiers, uncertain what to do, then halted,
gave up their arms, and became prisoners of war. Those further away from
the horsemen continued to run and were shot or hunted down in twos and
threes, and some made good their escape.

For my part I found myself on the engine when the obstruction was at
last passed and remained there jammed in the cab next to the man with
the shattered arm. In this way I travelled some 500 yards, and passed
through the fugitives, noticing particularly a young officer, Lieutenant
Frankland, who with a happy, confident smile on his face was
endeavouring to rally his men. When I approached the houses where we had
resolved to make a stand, I jumped on to the line, in order to collect
the men as they arrived, and hence the address from which this letter is
written, for scarcely had the locomotive left me than I found myself
alone in a shallow cutting and none of our soldiers, who had all
surrendered on the way, to be seen. Then suddenly there appeared on the
line at the end of the cutting two men not in uniform. 'Platelayers,' I
said to myself, and then, with a surge of realisation, 'Boers.' My mind
retains a momentary impression of these tall figures, full of animated
movement, clad in dark flapping clothes, with slouch, storm-driven hats
poising on their rifles hardly a hundred yards away. I turned and ran
between the rails of the track, and the only thought I achieved was
this, 'Boer marksmanship.' Two bullets passed, both within a foot, one
on either side. I flung myself against the banks of the cutting. But
they gave no cover. Another glance at the figures; one was now kneeling
to aim. Again I darted forward. Movement seemed the only chance. Again
two soft kisses sucked in the air, but nothing struck me. This could not
endure. I must get out of the cutting--that damnable corridor. I
scrambled up the bank. The earth sprang up beside me, and something
touched my hand, but outside the cutting was a tiny depression. I
crouched in this, struggling to get my wind. On the other side of the
railway a horseman galloped up, shouting to me and waving his hand. He
was scarcely forty yards off. With a rifle I could have killed him
easily. I knew nothing of white flags, and the bullets had made me
savage. I reached down for my Mauser pistol. 'This one at least,' I
said, and indeed it was a certainty; but alas! I had left the weapon in
the cab of the engine in order to be free to work at the wreckage. What
then? There was a wire fence between me and the horseman. Should I
continue to fly? The idea of another shot at such a short range decided
me. Death stood before me, grim sullen Death without his light-hearted
companion, Chance. So I held up my hand, and like Mr. Jorrocks's foxes,
cried 'Capivy.' Then I was herded with the other prisoners in a
miserable group, and about the same time I noticed that my hand was
bleeding, and it began to pour with rain.

Two days before I had written to an officer in high command at home,
whose friendship I have the honour to enjoy: 'There has been a great
deal too much surrendering in this war, and I hope people who do so will
not be encouraged.' Fate had intervened, yet though her tone was full of
irony she seemed to say, as I think Ruskin once said, 'It matters very
little whether your judgments of people are true or untrue, and very
much whether they are kind or unkind,' and repeating that I will make an
end.




CHAPTER VIII

PRISONERS OF WAR


Pretoria: November 24, 1899.

The position of a prisoner of war is painful and humiliating. A man
tries his best to kill another, and finding that he cannot succeed asks
his enemy for mercy. The laws of war demand that this should be
accorded, but it is impossible not to feel a sense of humbling
obligation to the captor from whose hand we take our lives. All military
pride, all independence of spirit must be put aside. These may be
carried to the grave, but not into captivity. We must prepare ourselves
to submit, to obey, to endure. Certain things--sufficient food and water
and protection during good behaviour--the victor must supply or be a
savage, but beyond these all else is favour. Favours must be accepted
from those with whom we have a long and bitter quarrel, from those who
feel fiercely that we seek to do them cruel injustice. The dog who has
been whipped must be thankful for the bone that is flung to him.

When the prisoners captured after the destruction of the armoured train
had been disarmed and collected in a group we found that there were
fifty-six unwounded or slightly wounded men, besides the more serious
cases lying on the scene of the fight. The Boers crowded round, looking
curiously at their prize, and we ate a little chocolate that by good
fortune--for we had had no breakfast--was in our pockets, and sat down
on the muddy ground to think. The rain streamed down from a dark leaden
sky, and the coats of the horses steamed in the damp. 'Voorwaerts,' said
a voice, and, forming in a miserable procession, two wretched officers,
a bare-headed, tattered Correspondent, four sailors with straw hats and
'H.M.S. Tartar' in gold letters on the ribbons--ill-timed
jauntiness--some fifty soldiers and volunteers, and two or three
railwaymen, we started, surrounded by the active Boer horsemen. Yet, as
we climbed the low hills that surrounded the place of combat I looked
back and saw the engine steaming swiftly away beyond Frere Station.
Something at least was saved from the ruin; information would be carried
to the troops at Estcourt, a good many of the troops and some of the
wounded would escape, the locomotive was itself of value, and perhaps in
saving all these things some little honour had been saved as well.

'You need not walk fast,' said a Boer in excellent English; 'take your
time.' Then another, seeing me hatless in the downpour, threw me a
soldier's cap--one of the Irish Fusilier caps, taken, probably, near
Ladysmith. So they were not cruel men, these enemy. That was a great
surprise to me, for I had read much of the literature of this land of
lies, and fully expected every hardship and indignity. At length we
reached the guns which had played on us for so many minutes--two
strangely long barrels sitting very low on carriages of four wheels,
like a break in which horses are exercised. They looked offensively
modern, and I wondered why our Army had not got field artillery with
fixed ammunition and 8,000 yards range. Some officers and men of the
Staats Artillerie, dressed in a drab uniform with blue facings,
approached us. The commander, Adjutant Roos--as he introduced
himself--made a polite salute. He regretted the unfortunate
circumstances of our meeting; he complimented the officers on their
defence--of course, it was hopeless from the first; he trusted his fire
had not annoyed us; we should, he thought, understand the necessity for
them to continue; above all he wanted to know how the engine had been
able to get away, and how the line could have been cleared of wreckage
under his guns. In fact, he behaved as a good professional soldier
should, and his manner impressed me.

We waited here near the guns for half an hour, and meanwhile the Boers
searched amid the wreckage for dead and wounded. A few of the wounded
were brought to where we were, and laid on the ground, but most of them
were placed in the shelter of one of the overturned trucks. As I write I
do not know with any certainty what the total losses were, but the Boers
say that they buried five dead, sent ten seriously wounded into
Ladysmith, and kept three severely wounded in their field ambulances.
Besides this, we are told that sixteen severely wounded escaped on the
engine, and we have with the prisoners seven men, including myself,
slightly wounded by splinters or injured in the derailment. If this be
approximately correct, it seems that the casualties in the hour and a
half of fighting were between thirty-five and forty: not many, perhaps,
considering the fire, but out of 120 enough at least.

After a while we were ordered to march on, and looking over the crest of
the hill a strange and impressive sight met the eye. Only about 300 men
had attacked the train, and I had thought that this was the enterprise
of a separate detachment, but as the view extended I saw that this was
only a small part of a large, powerful force marching south, under the
personal direction of General Joubert, to attack Estcourt. Behind every
hill, thinly veiled by the driving rain, masses of mounted men, arranged
in an orderly disorder, were halted, and from the rear long columns of
horsemen rode steadily forward. Certainly I did not see less than 3,000,
and I did not see nearly all. Evidently an important operation was in
progress, and a collision either at Estcourt or Mooi River impended.
This was the long expected advance: worse late than never.

Our captors conducted us to a rough tent which had been set up in a
hollow in one of the hills, and which we concluded was General Joubert's
headquarters. Here we were formed in a line, and soon surrounded by a
bearded crowd of Boers cloaked in mackintosh. I explained that I was a
Special Correspondent, and asked to see General Joubert. But in the
throng it was impossible to tell who were the superiors. My credentials
were taken from me by a man who said he was a Field Cornet, and who
promised that they should be laid before the General forthwith.
Meanwhile we waited in the rain, and the Boers questioned us. My
certificate as a correspondent bore a name better known than liked in
the Transvaal. Moreover, some of the private soldiers had been talking.
'You are the son of Lord Randolph Churchill?' said a Scottish Boer,
abruptly. I did not deny the fact. Immediately there was much talking,
and all crowded round me, looking and pointing, while I heard my name
repeated on every side. 'I am a newspaper correspondent,' I said, 'and
you ought not to hold me prisoner.' The Scottish Boer laughed. 'Oh,' he
said, 'we do not catch lords' sons every day.' Whereat they all
chuckled, and began to explain that I should be allowed to play football
at Pretoria.

All this time I was expecting to be brought before General Joubert, from
whom I had some hopes I should obtain assurances that my character as a
press correspondent would be respected. But suddenly a mounted man rode
up and ordered the prisoners to march away towards Colenso. The escort,
twenty horsemen, closed round us. I addressed their leader, and
demanded either that I should be taken before the General, or that my
credentials should be given back. But the so-called Field Cornet was not
to be seen. The only response was, 'Voorwaerts,' and as it seemed
useless, undignified, and even dangerous to discuss the matter further
with these people, I turned and marched off with the rest.

We tramped for six hours across sloppy fields and along tracks deep and
slippery with mud, while the rain fell in a steady downpour and soaked
everyone to the skin. The Boer escort told us several times not to hurry
and to go our own pace, and once they allowed us to halt for a few
moments. But we had had neither food nor water, and it was with a
feeling of utter weariness that I saw the tin roofs of Colenso rise in
the distance. We were put into a corrugated iron shed near the station,
the floors of which were four inches deep with torn railway forms and
account books. Here we flung ourselves down exhausted, and what with the
shame, the disappointment, the excitement of the morning, the misery of
the present, and physical weakness, it seemed that love of life was
gone, and I thought almost with envy of a soldier I had seen during the
fight lying quite still on the embankment, secure in the calm philosophy
of death from 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.'

After the Boers had lit two fires they opened one of the doors of the
shed and told us we might come forth and dry ourselves. A newly
slaughtered ox lay on the ground, and strips of his flesh were given to
us. These we toasted on sticks over the fire and ate greedily, though
since the animal had been alive five minutes before one felt a kind of
cannibal. Other Boers not of our escort who were occupying Colenso came
to look at us. With two of these who were brothers, English by race,
Afrikanders by birth, Boers by choice, I had some conversation. The war,
they said, was going well. Of course, it was a great matter to face the
power and might of the British Empire, still they were resolved. They
would drive the English out of South Africa for ever, or else fight to
the last man. I said:

'You attempt the impossible. Pretoria will be taken by the middle of
March. What hope have you of withstanding a hundred thousand soldiers?'

'If I thought,' said the younger of the two brothers vehemently, 'that
the Dutchmen would give in because Pretoria was taken, I would smash my
rifle on those metals this very moment. We will fight for ever.' I could
only reply:

'Wait and see how you feel when the tide is running the other way. It
does not seem so easy to die when death is near.'

The man said, 'I will wait.'

Then we made friends. I told him that I hoped he would come safely
through the war, and live to see a happier and a nobler South Africa
under the flag which had been good enough for his forefathers; and he
took off his blanket--which he was wearing with a hole in the middle
like a cloak--and gave it to me to sleep in. So we parted, and
presently, as night fell, the Field Cornet who had us in charge bade us
carry a little forage into the shed to sleep on, and then locked us up
in the dark, soldiers, sailors, officers, and Correspondent--a
broken-spirited jumble.

I could not sleep. Vexation of spirit, a cold night, and wet clothes
withheld sweet oblivion. The rights and wrongs of the quarrel, the
fortunes and chances of the war, forced themselves on the mind. What men
they were, these Boers! I thought of them as I had seen them in the
morning riding forward through the rain--thousands of independent
riflemen, thinking for themselves, possessed of beautiful weapons, led
with skill, living as they rode without commissariat or transport or
ammunition column, moving like the wind, and supported by iron
constitutions and a stern, hard Old Testament God who should surely
smite the Amalekites hip and thigh. And then, above the rain storm that
beat loudly on the corrugated iron, I heard the sound of a chaunt. The
Boers were singing their evening psalm, and the menacing notes--more
full of indignant war than love and mercy--struck a chill into my heart,
so that I thought after all that the war was unjust, that the Boers were
better men than we, that Heaven was against us, that Ladysmith,
Mafeking, and Kimberley would fall, that the Estcourt garrison would
perish, that foreign Powers would intervene, that we should lose South
Africa, and that would be the beginning of the end. So for the time I
despaired of the Empire, nor was it till the morning sun--all the
brighter after the rain storms, all the warmer after the chills--struck
in through the windows that things reassumed their true colours and
proportions.




CHAPTER IX

THROUGH THE DUTCH CAMPS


Pretoria: November 30, 1899.

The bitter wind of disappointment pierces even the cloak of sleep.
Moreover, the night was cold and the wet clothes chilled and stiffened
my limbs, provoking restless and satisfactory dreams. I was breakfasting
with President Kruger and General Joubert. 'Have some jam,' said the
President. 'Thanks,' I replied, 'I would rather have marmalade.' But
there was none. Their evident embarrassment communicated itself to me.
'Never mind,' I said, 'I'd just as soon have jam.' But the President was
deeply moved. 'No, no,' he cried; 'we are not barbarians. Whatever you
are entitled to you shall have, if I have to send to Johannesburg for
it.' So he got up to ring the bell, and with the clang I woke.

The first light of dawn was just peering in through the skylight of the
corrugated iron shed. The soldiers lay in a brown litter about the
floor, several snoring horribly. The meaning of it came home with a
slap. Imprisoned; not able to come and go at will; about to be dragged
off and put in some secluded place while others fought the great quarrel
to the end; out of it all--like a pawn taken early in the game and flung
aside into the box. I groaned with vexation, and, sitting up, aroused
Frankland, who shared my blanket. Then the Boers unlocked the doors and
ordered us to get ready to march at once.

The forage which we had spread on the floor rustled, and the first idea
of escape crossed my mind. Why not lie buried underneath this litter
until prisoners and escort had marched away together? Would they count?
Would they notice? I did not think so. They would reason--we know they
all went in; it is certain none could have escaped during the night:
therefore all must be here this morning. Suppose they missed me? 'Where
is the "reporter," with whom we talked last evening?' Haldane would
reply that he must have slipped out of the door before it was shut. They
might scour the country; but would they search the shed? It seemed most
unlikely. The scheme pleased my fancy exceedingly, and I was just
resolving to conceal myself, when one of the guards entered and ordered
everyone to file out forthwith.

We chewed a little more of the ox, slain and toasted the night before,
and drank some rainwater from a large puddle, and, after this frugal
breakfast, intimated that we were ready. Then we set out--a sorry gang
of dirty, tramping prisoners, but yesterday the soldiers of the Queen;
while the fierce old farmers cantered their ponies about the veldt or
closed around the column, looking at us from time to time with
irritating disdain and still more irritating pity. We marched across the
waggon bridge of the Tugela, and following the road, soon entered the
hills. Among these we journeyed for several hours, wading across the
gullies which the heavy rains had turned into considerable streams and
persecuted by the slanting rays of the sun. Here and there parties of
Boers met us, and much handshaking and patting on the back ensued
between the newcomers and our escort. Once we halted at a little field
hospital--a dozen tents and waggons with enormous red-cross flags,
tucked away in a deep hollow.

We passed through Pieters without a check at the same toilsome plod and
on to Nelthorpe. Here we began to approach the Dutch lines of investment
round Ladysmith, and the advance of half an hour brought us to a very
strong picket, where we were ordered to halt and rest. Nearly two
hundred Boers swarmed round in a circle and began at once--for they are
all keen politicians and as curious as children--to ask questions of
every sort. What did we think of South Africa? Would we like to go in an
armoured train again? How long would the English go on fighting? When
would the war end? and the reply, 'When you are beaten,' was received
with shouts of laughter.

'Oh no, old chappie, you can never beat us. Look at Mafeking. We have
taken Mafeking. You will find Baden Powell waiting for you at Pretoria.
Kimberley, too, will fall this week. Rhodes is trying to escape in a
balloon, disguised as a woman--a fine woman.' Great merriment at this.
'What about Ladysmith?' 'Ten days. Ten days more and then we shall have
some whisky.' Listen. There was the boom of a heavy gun, and, turning, I
saw the white cloud of smoke hanging on the crest of Bulwana.

'That goes on always,' said the Boer. 'Can any soldiers bear that long?
Oh, you will find all the English army at Pretoria. Indeed, if it were
not for the sea-sickness we would take England. Besides, do you think
the European Powers will allow you to bully us?'

I said, 'Why bully if you are so strong?'

'Well, why should you come and invade our country?'

'Your country? I thought this was Natal.'

'So it is: but Natal is ours. You stole it from us. Now we take it back
again. That's all.'

A hum of approval ran round the grinning circle. An old Boer came up. He
did not understand what induced the soldiers to go in the armoured
train. Frankland replied, 'Ordered to. Don't you have to obey your
orders?'

The old man shook his head in bewilderment, then he observed, 'I fight
to kill: I do not fight to be killed. If the Field Cornet was to order
me to go in an armoured train, I would say to him, "Field Cornet, go to
hell."'

'Ah, you are not soldiers.'

'But we catch soldiers and kill soldiers and make soldiers run away.'

There was a general chorus of 'Yaw, yaw, yaw,' and grunts of amusement.

'You English,' said a well-dressed man, 'die for your country: we
Afrikanders live for ours.'

I said, 'Surely you don't think you will win this war?'

'Oh, yes; we will win all right this time, just the same as before.'

'But it is not the same as before. Gladstone is dead, they are
determined at home. If necessary they will send three hundred thousand
men and spend a hundred millions.'

'We are not afraid; no matter how many thousand penny soldiers you
send,' and an English Boer added, 'Let 'em all come.'

But there was one discordant note in the full chorus of confidence. It
recurred again and again. 'Where is Buller?' 'When is Buller coming?'
These merry fellows were not without their doubts.

'He will come when the army is ready.'

'But we have beaten the army.'

'No, the war has not begun yet.'

'It's all over for you, old chappie, anyway.'

It was a fair hit. I joined the general laughter, and, reviewing the
incident by the light of subsequent events, feel I had some right to.

Very soon after this we were ordered to march again, and we began to
move to the eastward in the direction of the Bulwana Hill, descending as
we did so into the valley of the Klip River. The report of the
intermittent guns engaged in the bombardment of Ladysmith seemed very
loud and near, and the sound of the British artillery making occasional
reply could be plainly distinguished. After we had crossed the railway
line beyond Nelthorpe I caught sight of another evidence of the
proximity of friends. High above the hills, to the left of the path,
hung a speck of gold-beater's skin. It was the Ladysmith balloon. There,
scarcely two miles away, were safety and honour. The soldiers noticed
the balloon too. 'Those are our blokes,' they said. 'We ain't all
finished yet,' and so they comforted themselves, and a young sergeant
advanced a theory that the garrison would send out cavalry to rescue us.

We kept our eyes on the balloon till it was hidden by the hills, and I
thought of all that lay at the bottom of its rope. Beleaguered
Ladysmith, with its shells, its flies, its fever, and its filth seemed
a glorious paradise to me.

We forded the Klip River breast high, and, still surrounded by our
escort, trudged on towards the laagers behind Bulwana. But it was just
three o'clock, after about ten hours' marching, that we reached the camp
where we were to remain for the night. Having had no food--except the
toasted ox, a disgusting form of nourishment--and being besides unused
to walking far, I was so utterly worn out on arrival that at first I
cared for nothing but to lie down under the shade of a bush. But after
the Field-Cornet had given us some tea and bully beef, and courteously
bidden us to share the shelter of his tent, I felt equal to further
argument.

The Boers were delighted and crowded into the small tent.

'Will you tell us why there is this war?'

I said that it was because they wanted to beat us out of South Africa
and we did not like the idea.

'Oh no, that is not the reason.' Now that the war had begun they would
drive the British into the sea; but if we had been content with what we
had they would not have interfered with us--except to get a port and
have their full independence recognised.

'I will tell you what is the real cause of this war. It's all those
damned capitalists. They want to steal our country, and they have bought
Chamberlain, and now these three, Rhodes, Beit, and Chamberlain, think
they will have the Rand to divide between them afterwards.'

'Don't you know that the gold mines are the property of the
shareholders, many of whom are foreigners--Frenchman and Germans and
others? After the war, whatever government rules, they will still belong
to these people.'

'What are we fighting for then?'

'Because you hate us bitterly, and have armed yourselves in order to
attack us, and we naturally chose to fight when we are not occupied
elsewhere. "Agree with thine adversary whiles thou art in the way with
him.'"

'Don't you think it wicked to try to steal our country?'

'We only want to protect ourselves and our own interests. We didn't want
your country.'

'No, but the damned capitalists do.'

'If you had tried to keep on friendly terms with us there would have
been no war. But you want to drive us out of South Africa. Think of a
great Afrikander Republic--all South Africa speaking Dutch--a United
States under your President and your Flag, sovereign and international.'

Their eyes glittered. 'That's what we want,' said one. 'Yaw, yaw,' said
the others, 'and that's what we're going to have.'

'Well, that's the reason of the war.'

'No, no. You know it's those damned capitalists and Jews who have caused
the war.' And the argument recommenced its orbit.

So the afternoon wore away.

As the evening fell the Commandant required us to withdraw to some tents
which had been pitched at the corner of the laager. A special tent was
provided for the officers, and now, for the first time, they found
themselves separated from their men. I had a moment in which to decide
whether I would rank as officer or private, and chose the former, a
choice I was soon to regret. Gradually it became night. The scene as the
daylight faded was striking and the circumstances were impressive. The
dark shadow of Bulwana mountain flung back over the Dutch camp, and the
rugged, rock-strewn hills rose about it on all sides. The great waggons
were arranged to enclose a square, in the midst of which stood clusters
of variously shaped tents and lines of munching oxen. Within the laager
and around it little fires began to glow, and by their light the figures
of the Boers could be seen busy cooking and eating their suppers, or
smoking in moody, muttering groups. All was framed by the triangular
doorway of the tent, in which two ragged, bearded men sat nursing their
rifles and gazing at their captives in silence. Nor was it till my
companions prepared to sleep that the stolid guards summoned the energy
and wit to ask, in struggling English (for these were real veldt
Boers), the inevitable question, 'And after all, what are we fighting
for? Why is there this war?' But I was tired of arguing, so I said, 'It
is the will of God,' and turned to rest with a more confident feeling
than the night before, for I felt that these men were wearying of the
struggle.

To rest but not to sleep, for the knowledge that the British lines at
Ladysmith lay only five miles away filled my brain with hopes and plans
of escape. I had heard it said that all Dutchmen slept between 12 and 2
o'clock, and I waited, trusting that our sentries would observe the
national custom. But I soon saw that I should have been better situated
with the soldiers. We three officers were twenty yards from the laager,
and around our little tent, as I learned by peering through a rent in
the canvas, no less than four men were posted. At intervals they were
visited or relieved, at times they chatted together; but never for a
minute was their vigilance relaxed, and the continual clicking of the
Mauser breech bolts, as they played with their rifles, unpleasantly
proclaimed their attention. The moon was full and bright, and it was
obvious that no possible chance of success awaited an attempt.

With the soldiers the circumstances were more favourable. Their tent
stood against the angle of the laager, and although the sentries watched
the front and sides it seemed to me that a man might crawl through the
back, and by walking boldly across the laager itself pass safely out
into the night. It was certainly a road none would expect a fugitive to
take; but whatever its chances it was closed to me, for the guard was
changed at midnight and a new sentry stationed between our tent and
those near the laager.

I examined him through the torn tent. He was quite a child--a boy of
about fourteen--and needless to say appreciated the importance of his
duties. He played this terrible game of soldiers with all his heart and
soul; so at last I abandoned the idea of flight and fell asleep.

In the morning, before the sun was up, the Commandant Davel came to
rouse us. The prisoners were to march at once to Elandslaagte Station.
'How far?' we asked, anxiously, for all were very footsore. 'Only a very
little way--five hours' slow walking.' We stood up--for we had slept in
our clothes and cared nothing for washing--and said that we were ready.
The Commandant then departed, to return in a few minutes bringing some
tea and bully beef, which he presented to us with an apology for the
plainness of the fare. He asked an English-speaking Boer to explain that
they had nothing better themselves. After we had eaten and were about to
set forth, Dayel said, through his interpreter, that he would like to
know from us that we were satisfied with the treatment we met with at
his laager. We gladly gave him the assurance, and with much respect bade
good-bye to this dignified and honourable enemy. Then we were marched
away over the hills towards the north, skirting the picket line round
Ladysmith to the left. Every half-mile or so the road led through or by
some Boer laager, and the occupants--for it was a quiet day in the
batteries--turned out in hundreds to look at us. I do not know how many
men I saw, but certainly during this one march not less than 5,000. Of
this great number two only offered insults to the gang of prisoners. One
was a dirty, mean-looking little Hollander. He said, 'Well, Tommy,
you've got your franchise, anyhow.' The other was an Irishman. He
addressed himself to Frankland, whose badges proclaimed his regiment.
What he said when disentangled from obscenity amounted to this: 'I am
glad to see you Dublin fellows in trouble.' The Boers silenced him at
once and we passed on. But that was all the taunting we received during
the whole journey from Frere Station to Pretoria, and when one remembers
that the Burghers are only common men with hardly any real discipline,
the fact seems very remarkable. But little and petty as it was it galled
horribly. The soldiers felt the sting and scowled back; the officers
looked straight before them. Yet it was a valuable lesson. Only a few
days before I had read in the newspapers of how the Kaffirs had jeered
at the Boer prisoners when they were marched into Pietermaritzburg,
saying, 'Where are your passes?' It had seemed a very harmless joke
then, but now I understood how a prisoner feels these things.

It was about eleven o'clock when we reached Elandslaagte Station. A
train awaited the prisoners. There were six or seven closed vans for the
men and a first-class carriage for the officers. Into a compartment of
this we were speedily bundled. Two Boers with rifles sat themselves
between us, and the doors were locked. I was desperately hungry, and
asked for both food and water. 'Plenty is coming,' they said, so we
waited patiently, and sure enough, in a few minutes a railway official
came along the platform, opened the door, and thrust before us in
generous profusion two tins of preserved mutton, two tins of preserved
fish, four or five loaves, half a dozen pots of jam, and a large can of
tea. As far as I could see the soldiers fared no worse. The reader will
believe that we did not stand on ceremony, but fell to at once and made
the first satisfying meal for three days. While we ate a great crowd of
Boers gathered around the train and peered curiously in at the windows.
One of them was a doctor, who, noticing that my hand was bound up,
inquired whether I were wounded. The cut caused by the splinter of
bullet was insignificant, but since it was ragged and had received no
attention for two days it had begun to fester. I therefore showed him my
hand, and he immediately bustled off to get bandages and hot water and
what not, with which, amid the approving grins of the rough fellows who
thronged the platform, he soon bound me up very correctly.

The train whereby we were to travel was required for other business
besides; and I noticed about a hundred Boers embarking with their horses
in a dozen large cattle trucks behind the engine. At or about noon we
steamed off, moving slowly along the line, and Captain Haldane pointed
out to me the ridge of Elandslaagte, and gave me some further account of
that successful action and of the great skill with which Hamilton had
directed the infantry attack. The two Boers who were guarding us
listened with great interest, but the single observation they made was
that we had only to fight Germans and Hollanders at Elandslaagte. 'If
these had been veldt Boers in front of you----' My companion replied
that even then the Gordon Highlanders might have made some progress.
Whereat both Boers laughed softly and shook their heads with the air of
a wiseacre, saying, 'You will know better when you're as old as me,' a
remark I constantly endure from very worthy people.

Two stations beyond Elandslaagte the Boer commando, or portion of
commando, left the train, and the care and thought that had been
lavished on the military arrangements were very evident. All the
stations on the line were fitted with special platforms three or four
hundred yards long, consisting of earth embankments revetted with wood
towards the line and sloping to the ground on the other side. The
horsemen were thereby enabled to ride their horses out of the trucks,
and in a few minutes all were cantering away across the plain. One of
the Boer guards noticed the attention I paid to these arrangements. 'It
is in case we have to go back quickly to the Biggarsberg or Laing's
Nek,' he explained. As we travelled on I gradually fell into
conversation with this man. His name, he told me, was Spaarwater, which
he pronounced _Spare-_water. He was a farmer from the Ermolo district.
In times of peace he paid little or no taxes. For the last four years he
had escaped altogether. The Field Cornet, he remarked, was a friend of
his. But for such advantages he lay under the obligation to serve
without pay in war-time, providing horse, forage, and provisions. He was
a polite, meek-mannered little man, very anxious in all the discussion
to say nothing that could hurt the feelings of his prisoners, and I took
a great liking to him. He had fought at Dundee. 'That,' he said, 'was a
terrible battle. Your artillery? _Bang! bang! bang_! came the shells all
round us. And the bullets! _Whew_, don't tell me the soldiers can't
shoot. They shoot jolly well, old chappie. I, too, can shoot. I can hit
a bottle six times out of seven at a hundred yards, but when there is a
battle then I do not shoot so well.'

The other man, who understood a little English, grinned at this, and
muttered something in Dutch.

'What does he say?' I inquired.

'He says "He too,"' replied Spaarwater. 'Besides, we cannot see your
soldiers. At Dundee I was looking down the hill and saw nothing except
rows of black boots marching and the black belts of one of the
regiments.'

'But,' I said, 'you managed to hit some of them after all.'

He smiled, 'Ah, yes, we are lucky, and God is on our side. Why, after
Dundee, when we were retiring, we had to cross a great open plain, never
even an ant-hill, and you had put twelve great cannons--I counted
them--and Maxims as well, to shoot us as we went; but not one fired a
shot. Was it not God's hand that stopped them? After that we knew.'

I said: 'Of course the guns did not fire, because you had raised the
white flag.'

'Yes,' he answered, 'to ask for armistice, but not to give in. We are
not going to give in yet. Besides, we have heard that your Lancers
speared our wounded at Elandslaagte.' We were getting on dangerous
ground. He hastened to turn the subject. 'It's all those lying
newspapers that spread these reports on both sides, just like the
capitalists made the war by lying.'

A little further on the ticket collector came to join in the
conversation. He was a Hollander, and very eloquent.

'Why should you English take this country away from us?' he asked, and
the silent Boer chimed in broken English. 'Are not our farms our own?
Why must we fight for them?'

I endeavoured to explain the ground of our quarrel. 'After all British
government is not a tyranny.'

'It's no good for a working-man,' said the ticket collector; 'look at
Kimberley. Kimberley was a good place to live in before the capitalists
collared it. Look at it now. Look at me. What are my wages?'

I forget what he said they were, but they were extraordinary wages for a
ticket collector.

'Do you suppose I should get such wages under the English Government?'

I said 'No.'

'There you are,' he said. 'No English Government for me,' and added
inconsequently, 'We fight for our freedom.'

Now I thought I had an argument that would tell. I turned th the farmer,
who had been listening approvingly:

'Those are very good wages.'

'Ah, yes.'

'Where does the money come from?'

'Oh, from the taxes ... and from the railroad.'

'Well, now, you send a good deal of your produce by rail, I suppose?'

'Ya' (an occasional lapse into Dutch).

'Don't you find the rates very high?'

'Ya, ya,' said both the Boers together; 'very high.'

'That is because he' (pointing to the ticket collector) 'is getting such
good wages. You are paying them.' At this they both laughed heartily,
and Spaarwater said that that was quite true, and that the rates were
too high.

'Under the English Government,' I said, 'he will not get such high
wages; you will not have to pay such high rates.'

They received the conclusion in silence. Then Spaarwater said, 'Yes, but
we shall have to pay a tribute to your Queen.'

'Does Cape Colony?' I asked.

'Well, what about that ironclad?'

'A present, a free-will offering because they are contented--as you will
be some day--under our flag.'

'No, no, old chappie, we don't want your flag; we want to be left alone.
We are free, you are not free.'

'How do you mean "not free"?'

'Well, is it right that a dirty Kaffir should walk on the
pavement--without a pass too? That's what they do in your British
Colonies. Brother! Equal! Ugh! Free! Not a bit. We know how to treat
Kaffirs.'

Probing at random I had touched a very sensitive nerve. We had got down
from underneath the political and reached the social. What is the true
and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule? It is not Slagters
Nek, nor Broomplatz, nor Majuba, nor the Jameson Raid. Those incidents
only fostered its growth. It is the abiding fear and hatred of the
movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.
British government is associated in the Boer farmer's mind with violent
social revolution. Black is to be proclaimed the same as white. The
servant is to be raised against the master; the Kaffir is to be declared
the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be
armed with political rights. The dominant race is to be deprived of
their superiority; nor is a tigress robbed of her cubs more furious than
is the Boer at this prospect.

I mused on the tangled skein of politics and party principles. This
Boer farmer was a very typical character, and represented to my mind all
that was best and noblest in the African Dutch character. Supposing he
had been conducting Mr. Morley to Pretoria, not as a prisoner of war,
but as an honoured guest, instead of me, what would their conversation
have been? How excellently they would have agreed on the general
question of the war! I could imagine the farmer purring with delight as
his distinguished charge dilated in polished sentences upon liberty and
the rights of nationalities. Both would together have bewailed the
horrors of war and the crime of aggression; both would have condemned
the tendencies of modern Imperialism and Capitalism; both would have
been in complete accord whenever the names of Rhodes, Chamberlain, or
Milner were mentioned. And the spectacle of this citizen soldier, called
reluctant, yet not unwilling, from the quiet life of his farm to fight
bravely in defence of the soil on which he lived, which his fathers had
won by all manner of suffering and peril, and to preserve the
independence which was his pride and joy, against great enemies of
regulars--surely that would have drawn the most earnest sympathy of the
eminent idealist. And then suddenly a change, a jarring note in the duet
of agreement.

'_We_ know how to treat Kaffirs in _this_ country. Fancy letting the
black filth walk on the pavement!'

And after that no more agreement: but argument growing keener and
keener; gulf widening every moment.

'Educate a Kaffir! Ah, that's you English all over. No, no, old chappie.
We educate 'em with a stick. Treat 'em with humanity and
consideration--I like that. They were put here by the God Almighty to
work for us. We'll stand no damned nonsense from them. We'll keep them
in their proper places. What do you think? Insist on their proper
treatment will you? Ah, that's what we're going to see about now. We'll
settle whether you English are to interfere with us before this war is
over.'

The afternoon dragged away before the train passed near Dundee.
Lieutenant Frankland had helped to storm Talana Hill, and was much
excited to see the field of battle again under these new circumstances.
'It would all have been different if Symons had lived. We should never
have let them escape from under our guns. That commando would have been
smashed up altogether.'

'But what about the other commando that came up the next day?'

'Oh, the General would have managed them all right. He'd have, soon
found some way of turning them out.' Nor do I doubt he would, if the
fearless confidence with which he inspired his troops could have
protected his life. But the bullet is brutally indiscriminating, and
before it the brain of a hero or the quarters of a horse stand exactly
the same chance to the vertical square inch.

After Talana Hill was lost to view we began to search for Majuba, and
saw it just as night closed in--a great dark mountain with memories as
sad and gloomy as its appearance. The Boer guards pointed out to us
where they had mounted their big cannons to defend Laing's Nek, and
remarked that the pass was now impregnable. I could not resist saying,
'This is not the only road into the Transvaal.' 'Ah, but you English
always come where we want you to come.'

We now approached the frontier. I had indulged in hopes of leaving the
train while in the Volksrust Tunnel by climbing out of the window. The
possibility had, however, presented itself to Spaarwater, for he shut
both windows, and just before we reached the entrance opened the breech
of his Mauser to show me that it was fully loaded. So prudence again
imposed patience. It was quite dark when the train reached Volksrust,
and we knew ourselves actually in the enemy's country. The platform was
densely crowded with armed Boers. It appeared that two new commandos had
been called out, and were waiting for trains to take them to the front.
Moreover, a strong raiding party had just come back from British
Swaziland. The windows were soon blocked with the bearded faces of men
who gazed stolidly and commented freely to each other on our
appearance. It was like being a wild beast in a cage. After some time a
young woman pushed her way to the window and had a prolonged stare, at
the end of which she observed in a loud voice (I must record it)--'Why,
they're not so bad looking after all.' At this there was general
laughter, and Spaarwater, who was much concerned, said that they meant
no harm, and that if we were annoyed he would have everyone cleared
away. But I said: 'Certainly not; let them feast their eyes.' So they
did, for forty minutes by the clock.

Their faces were plain and rough, but not unkindly. The little
narrow-set pig-eyes were the most displeasing feature. For the rest they
looked what they were, honest ignorant peasants with wits sharpened by
military training and the conditions of a new country. Presently I
noticed at the window furthest from the platform one of quite a
different type. A handsome boyish face without beard or moustache, and a
very amiable expression. We looked at each other. There was no one else
at that side of the carriage.

'Will you have some cigarettes?' he said, holding me out a packet. I
took one, and we began to talk. 'Is there going to be much more war?' he
inquired anxiously.

'Yes, very much more; we have scarcely begun,' He looked quite
miserable.

I said, 'You have not been at the front yet?'

'No, I am only just commandeered.'

'How old are you?'

'Sixteen.'

'That's very young to go and fight.'

He shook his head sadly.

'What's your name?'

'Cameron.'

'That's not a Dutch name?'

'No, I'm not a Dutchman. My father came from Scotland.'

'Then why do you go and fight against the British?'

'How can I help it? I live here. You must go when you're commandeered.
They wouldn't let me off. Mother tried her best. But it's "come out and
fight or leave the country" here, and we've got nothing but the farm.'

'The Government would have paid you compensation afterwards.'

'Ah! that's what they told father last time. He was loyal, and helped to
defend the Pretoria laager. He lost everything, and he had to begin all
over again.'

'So now you fight against your country?'

'I can't help it,' he repeated sullenly, 'you must go when you're
commandeered.' And then he climbed down off the footboard, and I did not
see him again--one piteous item of Gladstone's legacy--the ruined and
abandoned loyalist in the second generation.

Before the train left Volksrust we changed our guards. The honest
burghers who had captured us had to return to the front, and we were to
be handed over to the police. The leader of the escort--a dear old
gentleman--I am ignorant of his official rank--approached and explained
through Spaarwater that it was he who had placed the stone and so caused
our misfortunes. He said he hoped we bore no malice. We replied by no
means, and that we would do the same for him with pleasure any day.
Frankland asked him what rewards he would get for such distinguished
service. In truth he might easily have been shot, had we turned the
corner a minute earlier. The subaltern apparently contemplated some
Republican V.C. or D.S.O. But the farmer was much puzzled by his
question. After some explaining we learnt that he had been given
fourteen days' furlough to go home to his farm and see his wife. His
evident joy and delight were touching. I said 'Surely this is a very
critical time to leave the front. You may miss an important battle.'

'Yes,' he replied simply, 'I hope so.' Then we said 'good-bye,' and I
gave him, and also Spaarwater, a little slip of paper setting forth that
they had shown kindness and courtesy to British prisoners of war, and
personally requesting anyone into whose hands the papers might come to
treat them well, should they themselves be taken by the Imperial forces.

We were then handed to a rather dilapidated policeman of a gendarme
type, who spat copiously on the floor of the carriage and informed us
that we should be shot if we attempted to escape. Having no desire to
speak to this fellow, we let down the sleeping shelves of the
compartment and, as the train steamed out of Volksrust, turned to sleep.




CHAPTER X

IN AFRIKANDER BONDS


Pretoria: December 3rd, 1899.

It was, as nearly as I can remember, midday when the train-load of
prisoners reached Pretoria. We pulled up in a sort of siding with an
earth platform on the right side which opened into the streets of the
town. The day was fine, and the sun shone brightly. There was a
considerable crowd of people to receive us; ugly women with bright
parasols, loafers and ragamuffins, fat burghers too heavy to ride at the
front, and a long line of untidy, white-helmeted policemen--'zarps' as
they were called--who looked like broken-down constabulary. Someone
opened--unlocked, that is, the point--the door of the railway carriage
and told us to come out; and out we came--a very ragged and tattered
group of officers--and waited under the sun blaze and the gloating of
many eyes. About a dozen cameras were clicking busily, establishing an
imperishable record of our shame. Then they loosed the men and bade them
form in rank. The soldiers came out of the dark vans, in which they had
been confined, with some eagerness, and began at once to chirp and joke,
which seemed to me most ill-timed good humour. We waited altogether for
about twenty minutes. Now for the first time since my capture I hated
the enemy. The simple, valiant burghers at the front, fighting bravely
as they had been told 'for their farms,' claimed respect, if not
sympathy. But here in Pretoria all was petty and contemptible. Slimy,
sleek officials of all nationalities--the red-faced, snub-nosed
Hollander, the oily Portuguese half-caste--thrust or wormed their way
through the crowd to look. I seemed to smell corruption in the air. Here
were the creatures who had fattened on the spoils. There in the field
were the heroes who won them. Tammany Hall was defended by the
Ironsides.

From these reflections I was recalled by a hand on my shoulder. A
lanky, unshaven police sergeant grasped my arm. 'You are not an
officer,' he said; 'you go this way with the common soldiers,' and he
led me across the open space to where the men were formed in a column of
fours. The crowd grinned: the cameras clicked again. I fell in with the
soldiers and seized the opportunity to tell them not to laugh or smile,
but to appear serious men who cared for the cause they fought for; and
when I saw how readily they took the hint, and what influence I
possessed with them, it seemed to me that perhaps with two thousand
prisoners something some day might be done. But presently a superior
official--superior in rank alone, for in other respects he looked a
miserable creature--came up and led me back to the officers. At last,
when the crowd had thoroughly satisfied their patriotic curiosity, we
were marched off; the soldiers to the enclosed camp on the racecourse,
the officers to the States Model Schools prison.

The distance was short, so far as we were concerned, and surrounded by
an escort of three armed policemen to each officer, we swiftly traversed
two sandy avenues with detached houses on either hand, and reached our
destination. We turned a corner; on the other side of the road stood a
long, low, red brick building with a slated verandah and a row of iron
railings before it. The verandah was crowded with bearded men in _khaki_
uniforms or brown suits of flannel--smoking, reading, or talking. They
looked up as we arrived. The iron gate was opened, and passing in we
joined sixty British officers 'held by the enemy;' and the iron gate was
then shut again.

'Hullo! How are you? Where did they catch you? What's the latest news of
Buller's advance? Are we going to be exchanged?' and a dozen other
questions were asked. It was the sort of reception accorded to a new boy
at a private school, or, as it seemed to me, to a new arrival in hell.
But after we had satisfied our friends in as much as we could,
suggestions of baths, clothes, and luncheon were made which were very
welcome. So we settled down to what promised to be a long and weary
waiting.

The States Model Schools is a one-storied building of considerable size
and solid structure, which occupies a corner formed by two roads through
Pretoria. It consists of twelve large class-rooms, seven or eight of
which were used by the British officers as dormitories and one as a
dining-room; a large lecture-hall, which served as an improvised
fives-court; and a well-fitted gymnasium. It stood in a quadrangular
playground about one hundred and twenty yards square, in which were a
dozen tents for the police guards, a cookhouse, two tents for the
soldier servants, and a newly set-up bath-shed. I do not know how the
arrival of other prisoners may have modified these arrangements, but at
the time of my coming into the prison, there was room enough for
everyone.

The Transvaal Government provided a daily ration of bully beef and
groceries, and the prisoners were allowed to purchase from the local
storekeeper, a Mr. Boshof, practically everything they cared to order,
except alcoholic liquors. During the first week of my detention we
requested that this last prohibition might be withdrawn, and after
profound reflection and much doubtings, the President consented to
countenance the buying of bottled beer. Until this concession was
obtained our liquid refreshment would have satisfied the most immoderate
advocate of temperance, and the only relief was found when the Secretary
of State for War, a kind-hearted Portuguese, would smuggle in a bottle
of whiskey hidden in his tail-coat pocket or amid a basket of fruit. A
very energetic and clever young officer of the Dublin Fusiliers,
Lieutenant Grimshaw, undertook the task of managing the mess, and when
he was assisted by another subaltern--Lieutenant Southey, of the Royal
Irish Fusiliers--this became an exceedingly well-conducted concern. In
spite of the high prices prevailing in Pretoria--prices which were
certainly not lowered for our benefit--the somewhat meagre rations which
the Government allowed were supplemented, until we lived, for three
shillings a day, quite as well as any regiment on service.

On arrival, every officer was given a new suit of clothes, bedding,
towels, and toilet necessaries, and the indispensable Mr, Boshof was
prepared to add to this wardrobe whatever might be required on payment
either in money or by a cheque on Messrs. Cox & Co., whose accommodating
fame had spread even to this distant hostile town. I took an early
opportunity to buy a suit of tweeds of a dark neutral colour, and as
unlike the suits of clothes issued by the Government as possible. I
would also have purchased a hat, but another officer told me that he had
asked for one and had been refused. After all, what use could I find for
a hat, when there were plenty of helmets to spare if I wanted to Walk in
the courtyard? And yet my taste ran towards a slouch hat.

The case of the soldiers was less comfortable than ours. Their rations
were very scanty: only one pound of bully beef once a week and two
pounds of bread; the rest was made up with mealies, potatoes, and
such-like--and not very much of them. Moreover, since they had no
money of their own, and since prisoners of war received no pay, they
were unable to buy even so much as a pound of tobacco. In consequence
they complained a good deal, and were, I think, sufficiently
discontented to require nothing but leading to make them rise against
their guards.

The custody and regulating of the officers were entrusted to a board of
management, four of whose members visited us frequently and listened to
any complaints or requests. M. de Souza, the Secretary of War, was
perhaps the most friendly and obliging of these, and I think we owed
most of the indulgences to his representations. He was a far-seeing
little man who had travelled to Europe, and had a very clear conception
of the relative strengths of Britain and the Transvaal. He enjoyed a
lucrative and influential position under the Government, and was
therefore devoted to its interests, but he was nevertheless suspected by
the Inner Ring of Hollanders and the Relations of the President of
having some sympathy for the British. He had therefore to be very
careful. Commandant Opperman, who was directly responsible for our safe
custody, was in times of peace a Landrost or Justice. He was too fat to
go and fight, but he was an honest and patriotic Boer, who would have
gladly taken an active part in the war. He firmly believed that the
Republics would win, and when, as sometimes happened, bad news reached
Pretoria, Opperman looked a picture of misery, and would come to us and
speak of his resolve to shoot his wife and children and perish in the
defence of the capital. Dr. Gunning was an amiable little Hollander,
fat, rubicund, and well educated. He was a keen politician, and much
attached to the Boer Government, which paid him an excellent salary for
looking after the State Museum. He had a wonderful collection of postage
stamps, and was also engaged in forming a Zoological Garden. This last
ambition had just before the war led him into most serious trouble, for
he was unable to resist the lion which Mr. Rhodes had offered him. He
confided to me that the President had spoken 'most harshly' to him in
consequence, and had peremptorily ordered the immediate return of the
beast under threats of instant dismissal. Gunning said that he could not
have borne such treatment, but that after all a man must live. My
private impression is that he will acquiesce in any political settlement
which leaves him to enlarge his museum undisturbed. But whether the
Transvaal will be able to indulge in such luxuries, after blowing up
many of other people's railway bridges, is a question which I cannot
answer.

The fourth member of the Board, Mr. Malan, was a foul and objectionable
brute. His personal courage was better suited to insulting the prisoners
in Pretoria than to fighting the enemy at the front. He was closely
related to the President, but not even this advantage could altogether
protect him from taunts of cowardice, which were made even in the
Executive Council, and somehow filtered down to us. On one occasion he
favoured me with some of his impertinence; but I reminded him that in
war either side may win, and asked whether he was wise to place himself
in a separate category as regards behaviour to the prisoners. 'Because,'
quoth I, 'it might be so convenient to the British Government to be able
to make one or two examples.' He was a great gross man, and his colour
came and went on a large over-fed face; so that his uneasiness was
obvious. He never came near me again, but some days later the news of a
Boer success arrived, and on the strength of this he came to the prison
and abused a subaltern in the Dublin Fusiliers, telling him that he was
no gentleman, and other things which it is not right to say to a
prisoner. The subaltern happens to be exceedingly handy with his fists,
so that after the war is over Mr. Malan is going to get his head punched
quite independently of the general settlement.

Although, as I have frequently stated, there were no legitimate grounds
of complaint against the treatment of British regular officers while
prisoners of war, the days I passed at Pretoria were the most monotonous
and among the most miserable of my life. Early in the sultry mornings,
for the heat at this season of the year was great, the soldier
servants--prisoners like ourselves--would bring us a cup of coffee, and
sitting up in bed we began to smoke the cigarettes and cigars of another
idle, aimless day. Breakfast was at nine: a nasty uncomfortable meal.
The room was stuffy, and there are more enlivening spectacles than
seventy British officers caught by Dutch farmers and penned together in
confinement. Then came the long morning, to be killed somehow by
reading, chess, or cards--and perpetual cigarettes. Luncheon at one: the
same as breakfast, only more so; and then a longer afternoon to follow a
long morning. Often some of the officers used to play rounders in the
small yard which we had for exercise. But the rest walked moodily up and
down, or lounged over the railings and returned the stares of the
occasional passers-by. Later would come the 'Volksstem'--permitted by
special indulgence--with its budget of lies.

Sometimes we get a little fillip of excitement. One evening, as I was
leaning over the railings, more than forty yards from the nearest
sentry, a short man with a red moustache walked quickly down the street,
followed by two colley dogs. As he passed, but without altering his pace
in the slightest, or even looking towards me, he said quite distinctly
'Methuen beat the Boers to hell at Belmont.' That night the air seemed
cooler and the courtyard larger. Already we imagined the Republics
collapsing and the bayonets of the Queen's Guards in the streets of
Pretoria. Next day I talked to the War Secretary. I had made a large map
upon the wall and followed the course of the war as far as possible by
making squares of red and green paper to represent the various columns.
I said: 'What about Methuen? He has beaten you at Belmont. Now he should
be across the Modder. In a few days he will relieve Kimberley.' De Souza
shrugged his shoulders. 'Who can tell?' he replied; 'but,' he put his
finger on the map, 'there stands old Piet Cronje in a position called
Scholz Nek, and we don't think Methuen will ever get past him.' The
event justified his words, and the battle which we call Magersfontein
(and ought to call 'Maasfontayne') the Boers call Scholz Nek.

Long, dull, and profitless were the days. I could not write, for the ink
seemed to dry upon the pen. I could not read with any perseverance, and
during the whole month I was locked up, I only completed Carlyle's
'History of Frederick the Great' and Mill's 'Essay on Liberty,' neither
of which satisfied my peevish expectations. When at last the sun sank
behind the fort upon the hill and twilight marked the end of another
wretched day, I used to walk up and down the courtyard looking
reflectively at the dirty, unkempt 'zarps' who stood on guard, racking
my brains to find some way, by force or fraud, by steel or gold, of
regaining my freedom. Little did these Transvaal Policemen think, as
they leaned on their rifles, smoking and watching the 'tame officers,'
of the dark schemes of which they were the object, or of the peril in
which they would stand but for the difficulties that lay _beyond_ the
wall. For we would have made short work of them and their weapons any
misty night could we but have seen our way clear after that.

As the darkness thickened, the electric lamps were switched on and the
whole courtyard turned blue-white with black velvet shadows. Then the
bell clanged, and we crowded again into the stifling dining hall for the
last tasteless meal of the barren day. The same miserable stories were
told again and again--Colonel Moller's surrender after Talana Hill, and
the white flag at Nicholson's Nek--until I knew how the others came to
Pretoria as well as I knew my own story.

'We never realised what had happened until we were actually prisoners,'
said the officers of the Dublin Fusiliers Mounted Infantry, who had been
captured with Colonel Moller on October 20. 'The "cease fire" sounded:
no one knew what had happened. Then we were ordered to form up at the
farmhouse, and there we found Boers, who told us to lay down our arms:
we were delivered into their hands and never even allowed to have a
gallop for freedom. But wait for the Court of Inquiry.'

I used always to sit next to Colonel Carleton at dinner, and from him
and from the others learned the story of Nicholson's Nek, which it is
not necessary to repeat here, but which filled me with sympathy for the
gallant commander and soldiers who were betrayed by the act of an
irresponsible subordinate. The officers of the Irish Fusiliers told me
of the amazement with which they had seen the white flag flying. 'We had
still some ammunition,' they said; 'it is true the position was
indefensible--but we only wanted to fight it out.'

'My company was scarcely engaged,' said one poor captain, with tears of
vexation in his eyes at the memory; and the Gloucesters told the same
tale.

'We saw the hateful thing flying. The firing stopped. No one knew by
whose orders the flag had been hoisted. While we doubted the Boers were
all among us disarming the men.'

I will write no more upon these painful subjects except to say this,
that the hoisting of a white flag in token of surrender is an act which
can be justified only by clear proof that there was no prospect of
gaining the slightest military advantage by going on fighting; and that
the raising of a white flag in any case by an unauthorised person--i.e.
not the officer in chief command--in such a manner as to compromise the
resistance of a force, deserves sentence of death, though in view of the
high standard of discipline and honour prevailing in her Majesty's army,
it might not be necessary to carry the sentence into effect. I earnestly
trust that in justice to gallant officers and soldiers, who have
languished these weary months in Pretoria, there will be a strict
inquiry into the circumstances under which they became prisoners of war.
I have no doubt we shall be told that it is a foolish thing to wash
dirty linen in public; but much better wash it in public than wear it
foul.

One day shortly after I had arrived I had an interesting visit, for de
Souza, wishing to have an argument brought Mr. Grobelaar to see me. This
gentleman was the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and had just
returned from Mafeking, whither he had been conducting a 6-inch gun. He
was a very well-educated person, and so far as I could tell, honest and
capable besides. With him came Reuter's Agent, Mr. Mackay, and the
odious Malan. I received them sitting on my bed in the dormitory, and
when they had lighted cigars, of which I always kept a stock, we had a
regular _durbar_. I began:

'Well, Mr. Grobelaar, you see how your Government treats representatives
of the Press.'

_Grobelaar_. 'I hope you have nothing to complain of

_Self_. 'Look at the sentries with loaded rifles on every side. I might
be a wild beast instead of a special correspondent.'

_Grobelaar_. 'Ah, but putting aside the sentries with loaded rifles, you
do not, I trust, Mr. Churchill, make any complaint.'

_Self_. 'My chief objection to this place is that I am in it.'

_Grobelaar_. 'That of course is your misfortune, and Mr. Chamberlain's
fault.

_Self_. 'Not at all. We are a peace-loving people, but we had no choice
but to fight or be--what was it your burghers told me in the
camps?--"driven into the sea." The responsibility of the war is upon you
and your President.'

_Grobelaar_. 'Don't you believe that. We did not want to fight. We only
wanted to be left alone.'

_Self_. 'You never wanted war?'

_de Souza_. 'Ah, my God, no! Do you think we would fight Great Britain
for amusement?'

_Self_. 'Then why did you make every preparation--turn the Republics
into armed camps--prepare deep-laid plans for the invasion of our
Colonies?'

_Grobelaar_. 'Why, what could we do after the Jameson Raid? We had to be
ready to protect ourselves.'

_Self_. 'Surely less extensive armaments would have been sufficient to
guard against another similar inroad.'

_Grobelaar_. 'But we knew your Government was behind the Raiders.
Jameson was in front, but Rhodes and your Colonial Office were at his
elbow.'

_Self_. 'As a matter of fact no two people were more disconcerted by the
Raid than Chamberlain and Rhodes. Besides, the British Government
disavowed the Raiders' action and punished the Raiders, who, I am quite
prepared to admit, got no more than they deserved.'

_de Souza_. 'I don't complain about the British Government's action at
the time of the Raid. Chamberlain behaved very honourably then. But it
was afterwards, when Rhodes was not punished, that we knew it was all a
farce, and that the British Government was bent on our destruction. When
the burghers knew that Rhodes was not punished they lost all trust in
England.'

_Malan_. 'Ya, ya. That Rhodes, he is the ... at the bottom of it all.
You wait and see what we will do to Rhodes when we take Kimberley.'

_Self_. 'Then you maintain, de Souza, that the distrust caused in this
country by the fact that Rhodes was not punished--though how you can
punish a man who breaks no law I cannot tell--was the sole cause of your
Government making these gigantic military preparations, because it is
certain that these preparations were the actual cause of war.'

_Grobelaar_. 'Why should they be a cause of war? We would never have
attacked you.'

_Self_. 'But at this moment you are invading Cape Colony and Natal,
while no British soldier has set foot on Republican soil. Moreover, it
was you who declared war upon us.'

_Grobelaar_. 'Naturally we were not such fools as to wait till your army
was here. As soon as you began to send your army, we were bound to
declare war. If you had sent it earlier we should have fought earlier.
Really, Mr. Churchill, you must see that is only common sense.'

_Self_. 'I am not criticising your policy or tactics. You hated us
bitterly--I dare say you had cause to. You made tremendous
preparations--I don't say you were wrong--but look at it from our point
of view. We saw a declared enemy armed and arming. Against us, and
against us alone, could his preparations be directed. It was time we
took some precautions: indeed, we were already too late. Surely what has
happened at the front proves that we had no designs against you. You
were ready. We were unready. It is the wolf and lamb if you like; but
the wolf was asleep and never before was a lamb with such teeth and
claws.'

_Grobelaar_. 'Do you really mean to say that we forced this war on you,
that you did not want to fight us?'

_Self_. 'The country did not wish for war with the Boers. Personally, I
have always done so. I saw that you had six rifles to every burgher in
the Republic. I knew what that meant. It meant that you were going to
raise a great Afrikander revolt against us. One does not set extra
places at table unless one expects company to dinner. On the other
hand, we have affairs all over the world, and at any moment may become
embroiled with a European power. At this time things are very quiet. The
board is clear in other directions. We can give you our undivided
attention. Armed and ambitious as you were, the war had to come sooner
or later. I have always said "sooner." Therefore, I rejoiced when you
sent your ultimatum and roused the whole nation.'

_Malan_. 'You don't rejoice quite so much now.'

_Self_. 'My opinion is unaltered, except that the necessity for settling
the matter has become more apparent. As for the result, that, as I think
Mr. Grobelaar knows, is only a question of time and money expressed in
terms of blood and tears.'

_Grobelaar_. 'No: our opinion is quite unchanged. We prepared for the
war. We have always thought we could beat you. We do not doubt our
calculations now. We have done better even than we expected. The
President is extremely pleased.'

_Self_. 'There is no good arguing on that point. We shall have to fight
it out. But if you had tried to keep on friendly terms with us, the war
would not have come for a long time; and the delay was all on your
side.'

_Grobelaar_. 'We have tried till we are sick of it. This Government was
badgered out of its life with Chamberlain's despatches--such despatches.
And then look how we have been lied about in your papers, and called
barbarians and savages.'

_Self_. 'I think you have certainly been abused unjustly. Indeed, when I
was taken prisoner the other day, I thought it quite possible I should
be put to death, although I was a correspondent' (great laughter, 'Fancy
that!' etc.). 'At the best I expected to be held in prison as a kind of
hostage. See how I have been mistaken.'

I pointed at the sentry who stood in the doorway, for even members of
the Government could not visit us alone. Grobelaar flushed. 'Oh, well,
we will hope that the captivity will not impair your spirits. Besides,
it will not last long. The President expects peace before the New Year.'

'I shall hope to be free by then.'

And with this the interview came to an end, and my visitors withdrew.
The actual conversation had lasted more than an hour, but the dialogue
above is not an inaccurate summary.

About ten days after my arrival at Pretoria I received a visit from the
American Consul, Mr. Macrum. It seems that some uncertainty prevailed at
home as to whether I was alive, wounded or unwounded, and in what light
I was regarded by the Transvaal authorities. Mr. Bourke Cockran, an
American Senator who had long been a friend of mine, telegraphed from
New York to the United States representative in Pretoria, hoping by this
neutral channel to learn how the case stood. I had not, however, talked
with Mr. Macrum for very long before I realised that neither I nor any
other British prisoner was likely to be the better for any efforts which
he might make on our behalf. His sympathies were plainly so much with
the Transvaal Government that he even found it difficult to discharge
his diplomatic duties. However, he so far sank his political opinions
as to telegraph to Mr. Bourke Cockran, and the anxiety which my
relations were suffering on my account was thereby terminated.

I had one other visitor in these dull days, whom I should like to
notice. During the afternoon which I spent among the Boers in their camp
behind Bulwana Hill I had exchanged a few words with an Englishman whose
name is of no consequence, but who was the gunner entrusted with the
aiming of the big 6-inch gun. He was a light-hearted jocular fellow
outwardly, but I was not long in discovering that his anxieties among
the Boers were grave and numerous. He had been drawn into the war, so
far as I could make out, more by the desire of sticking to his own
friends and neighbours than even of preserving his property. But besides
this local spirit, which counterbalanced the racial and patriotic
feelings, there was a very strong desire to be upon the winning side,
and I think that he regarded the Boers with an aversion which increased
in proportion as their successes fell short of their early
anticipations. One afternoon he called at the States Model Schools
prison and, being duly authorised to visit the prisoners, asked to see
me. In the presence of Dr. Gunning, I had an interesting interview. At
first our conversation was confined to generalities, but gradually, as
the other officers in the room, with ready tact, drew the little
Hollander Professor into an argument, my renegade and I were able to
exchange confidences.

I was of course above all things anxious to get true news from the outer
world, and whenever Dr. Gunning's attention was distracted by his
discussion with the officers, I managed to get a little.

'Well, you know,' said the gunner, 'you English don't play fair at
Ladysmith at all. We have allowed you to have a camp at Intombi Spruit
for your wounded, and yet we see red cross flags flying in the town, and
we have heard that in the Church there is a magazine of ammunition
protected by the red cross flag. Major Erasmus, he says to me "John, you
smash up that building," and so when I go back I am going to fire into
the church.' Gunning broke out into panegyrics on the virtues of the
Afrikanders: my companion dropped his voice. 'The Boers have had a
terrible beating at Belmont; the Free Staters have lost more than 200
killed; much discouraged; if your people keep on like this the Free
State will break up.' He raised his voice, 'Ladysmith hold out a month?
Not possible; we shall give it a fortnight's more bombardment, and then
you will just see how the burghers will scramble into their trenches.
Plenty of whisky then, ha, ha, ha!' Then lower, 'I wish to God I could
get away from this, but I don't know what to do; they are always
suspecting me and watching me, and I have to keep on pretending I want
them to win. This is a terrible position for a man to be in: curse the
filthy Dutchmen!'

I said, 'Will Methuen get to Kimberley?'

'I don't know, but he gave them hell at Belmont and at Graspan, and they
say they are fighting again to-day at Modder River. Major Erasmus is
very down-hearted about it. But the ordinary burghers hear nothing but
lies; all lies, I tell you. _(Crescendo)_ Look at the lies that have
been told about us! Barbarians! savages! every name your papers have
called us, but you know better than that now; you know how well we have
treated you since you have been a prisoner; and look at the way your
people have treated our prisoners--put them on board ship to make them
sea-sick! Don't you call that cruel?' Here Gunning broke in that it was
time for visitors to leave the prison. And so my strange guest, a
feather blown along by the wind, without character or stability, a
renegade, a traitor to his blood and birthplace, a time-server, had to
hurry away. I took his measure; nor did his protestations of alarm
excite my sympathy, and yet somehow I did not feel unkindly towards him;
a weak man is a pitiful object in times of trouble. Some of our
countrymen who were living in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State at
the outbreak of the war have been placed in such difficult positions and
torn by so many conflicting emotions that they must be judged very
tolerantly. How few men are strong enough to stand against the
prevailing currents of opinion! Nor, after the desertion of the British
residents in the Transvaal in 1881, have we the right to judge their
successors harshly if they have failed us, for it was Great and Mighty
Britain who was the renegade and traitor then.

No sooner had I reached Pretoria than I demanded my release from the
Government, on the grounds that I was a Press correspondent and a
non-combatant. So many people have found it difficult to reconcile this
position with the accounts which have been published of what transpired
during the defence of the armoured train, that I am compelled to
explain. Besides the soldiers of the Dublin Fusiliers and Durban Light
Infantry who had been captured, there were also eight or ten civilians,
including a fireman, a telegraphist, and several men of the breakdown
gang. Now it seems to me that according to international practice and
the customs of war, the Transvaal Government were perfectly justified in
regarding all persons connected with a military train as actual
combatants; indeed, the fact that they were not soldiers was, if
anything, an aggravation of their case. But the Boers were at that time
overstocked with prisoners whom they had to feed and guard, and they
therefore announced that the civilians would be released as soon as
their identity was established, and only the military retained as
prisoners.

In my case, however, an exception was to be made, and General Joubert,
who had read the gushing accounts of my conduct which appeared in the
Natal newspapers, directed that since I had taken part in the fighting I
was to be treated as a combatant officer.

Now, as it happened, I had confined myself strictly to the business of
clearing the line, which was entrusted to me, and although I do not
pretend that I considered the matter in its legal aspect at the time,
the fact remains that I did not give a shot, nor was I armed when
captured. I therefore claimed to be included in the same category as the
civilian railway officials and men of the breakdown gang, whose
declared duty it was to clear the line, pointing out that though my
action might differ in degree from theirs, it was of precisely the same
character, and that if they were regarded as non-combatants I had a
right to be considered a non-combatant too.

To this effect I wrote two letters, one to the Secretary of War and one
to General Joubert; but, needless to say, I did not indulge in much hope
of the result, for I was firmly convinced that the Boer authorities
regarded me as a kind of hostage, who would make a pleasing addition to
the collection of prisoners they were forming against a change of
fortune. I therefore continued to search for a path of escape; and
indeed it was just as well that I did so, for I never received any
answer to either of my applications while I was a prisoner, although I
have since heard that one arrived by a curious coincidence the very day
_after_ I had departed.

While I was looking about for means, and awaiting an opportunity to
break out of the Model Schools, I made every preparation to make a
graceful exit when the moment should arrive. I gave full instructions to
my friends as to what was to be done with my clothes and the effects I
had accumulated during my stay; I paid my account to date with the
excellent Boshof; cashed a cheque on him for 20_l_.; changed some of the
notes I had always concealed on my person since my capture into gold;
and lastly, that there might be no unnecessary unpleasantness, I wrote
the following letter to the Secretary of State:


     States Model Schools Prison: December 10, 1899.

     Sir,--I have the honour to inform you that as I do not
     consider that your Government have any right to detain me as a
     military prisoner, I have decided to escape from your custody.
     I have every confidence in the arrangements I have made with
     my friends outside, and I do not therefore expect to have
     another opportunity of seeing you. I therefore take this
     occasion to observe that I consider your treatment of
     prisoners is correct and humane, and that I see no grounds
     for complaint. When I return to the British lines I will make
     a public statement to this effect. I have also to thank you
     personally for your civility to me, and to express the hope
     that we may meet again at Pretoria before very long, and under
     different circumstances. Regretting that I am unable to bid
     you a more ceremonious or a personal farewell,

     I have the honour, to be, Sir,
     Your most obedient servant,
     WINSTON CHURCHILL.

     To Mr. de Souza,
     Secretary of War, South African Republic.


I arranged that this letter, which I took great pleasure in writing,
should be left on my bed, and discovered so soon as my flight was known.

It only remained now to find a hat. Luckily for me Mr. Adrian Hofmeyr, a
Dutch clergyman and pastor of Zeerust, had ventured before the war to
express opinions contrary to those which the Boers thought befitting
for a Dutchman to hold. They had therefore seized him on the outbreak of
hostilities, and after much ill-treatment and many indignities on the
Western border, brought him to the States Schools. He knew most of the
officials, and could, I think, easily have obtained his liberty had he
pretended to be in sympathy with the Republics. He was, however, a true
man, and after the clergyman of the Church of England, who was rather a
poor creature, omitted to read the prayer for the Queen one Sunday, it
was to Hofmeyr's evening services alone that most of the officers would
go. I borrowed his hat.




CHAPTER XI

I ESCAPE FROM THE BOERS


Lourenco Marques: December 22, 1899,

How unhappy is that poor man who loses his liberty! What can the wide
world give him in exchange? No degree of material comfort, no
consciousness of correct behaviour, can balance the hateful degradation
of imprisonment. Before I had been an hour in captivity, as the previous
pages evidence, I resolved to escape. Many plans suggested themselves,
were examined, and rejected. For a month I thought of nothing else. But
the peril and difficulty restrained action. I think that it was the
report of the British defeat at Stormberg that clinched the matter. All
the news we heard in Pretoria was derived from Boer sources, and was
hideously exaggerated and distorted. Every day we read in the
'Volksstem'--probably the most astounding tissue of lies ever presented
to the public under the name of a newspaper--of Boer victories and of
the huge slaughters and shameful flights of the British. However much
one might doubt and discount these tales, they made a deep impression. A
month's feeding on such literary garbage weakens the constitution of the
mind. We wretched prisoners lost heart. Perhaps Great Britain would not
persevere; perhaps Foreign Powers would intervene; perhaps there would
be another disgraceful, cowardly peace. At the best the war and our
confinement would be prolonged for many months. I do not pretend that
impatience at being locked up was not the foundation of my
determination; but I should never have screwed up my courage to make the
attempt without the earnest desire to do something, however small, to
help the British cause. Of course, I am a man of peace. I did not then
contemplate becoming an officer of Irregular Horse. But swords are not
the only weapons in the world. Something may be done with a pen. So I
determined to take all hazards; and, indeed, the affair was one of very
great danger and difficulty.

The States Model Schools stand in the midst of a quadrangle, and are
surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated
iron fence about 10 ft. high. These boundaries offered little obstacle
to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they
were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with
rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier. No walls
are so hard to pierce as living walls. I thought of the penetrating
power of gold, and the sentries were sounded. They were incorruptible. I
seek not to deprive them of the credit, but the truth is that the
bribery market in the Transvaal has been spoiled by the millionaires. I
could not afford with my slender resources to insult them heavily
enough. So nothing remained but to break out in spite of them. With
another officer who may for the present--since he is still a
prisoner--remain nameless, I formed a scheme.

[Illustration: Plan of States Model Schools]

After anxious reflection and continual watching, it was discovered that
when the sentries near the offices walked about on their beats they were
at certain moments unable to see the top of a few yards of the wall. The
electric lights in the middle of the quadrangle brilliantly lighted the
whole place but cut off the sentries beyond them from looking at the
eastern wall, for from behind the lights all seemed darkness by
contrast. The first thing was therefore to pass the two sentries near
the offices. It was necessary to hit off the exact moment when both
their backs should be turned together. After the wall was scaled we
should be in the garden of the villa next door. There our plan came to
an end. Everything after this was vague and uncertain. How to get out of
the garden, how to pass unnoticed through the streets, how to evade the
patrols that surrounded the town, and above all how to cover the two
hundred and eighty miles to the Portuguese frontiers, were questions
which would arise at a later stage. All attempts to communicate with
friends outside had failed. We cherished the hope that with chocolate,
a little Kaffir knowledge, and a great deal of luck, we might march the
distance in a fortnight, buying mealies at the native kraals and lying
hidden by day. But it did not look a very promising prospect.

We determined to try on the night of the 11th of December, making up our
minds quite suddenly in the morning, for these things are best done on
the spur of the moment. I passed the afternoon in positive terror.
Nothing, since my schooldays, has ever disturbed me so much as this.
There is something appalling in the idea of stealing secretly off in the
night like a guilty thief. The fear of detection has a pang of its own.
Besides, we knew quite well that on occasion, even on excuse, the
sentries would fire. Fifteen yards is a short range. And beyond the
immediate danger lay a prospect of severe hardship and suffering, only
faint hopes of success, and the probability at the best of five months
in Pretoria Gaol.

The afternoon dragged tediously away. I tried to read Mr. Lecky's
'History of England,' but for the first time in my life that wise
writer wearied me. I played chess and was hopelessly beaten. At last it
grew dark. At seven o'clock the bell for dinner rang and the officers
trooped off. Now was the time. But the sentries gave us no chance. They
did not walk about. One of them stood exactly opposite the only
practicable part of the wall. We waited for two hours, but the attempt
was plainly impossible, and so with a most unsatisfactory feeling of
relief to bed.

Tuesday, the 12th! Another day of fear, but fear crystallising more and
more into desperation. Anything was better than further suspense. Night
came again. Again the dinner bell sounded. Choosing my opportunity I
strolled across the quadrangle and secreted myself in one of the
offices. Through a chink I watched the sentries. For half an hour they
remained stolid and obstructive. Then all of a sudden one turned and
walked up to his comrade and they began to talk. Their backs were
turned. Now or never. I darted out of my hiding place and ran to the
wall, seized the top with my hands and drew myself up. Twice I let
myself down again in sickly hesitation, and then with a third resolve
scrambled up. The top was flat. Lying on it I had one parting glimpse of
the sentries, still talking, still with their backs turned; but, I
repeat, fifteen yards away. Then I lowered myself silently down into the
adjoining garden and crouched among the shrubs. I was free. The first
step had been taken, and it was irrevocable.

It now remained to await the arrival of my comrade. The bushes of the
garden gave a good deal of cover, and in the moonlight their shadows lay
black on the ground. Twenty yards away was the house, and I had not been
five minutes in hiding before I perceived that it was full of people;
the windows revealed brightly lighted rooms, and within I could see
figures moving about. This was a fresh complication. We had always
thought the house unoccupied. Presently--how long afterwards I do not
know, for the ordinary measures of time, hours, minutes, and seconds are
quite meaningless on such occasions--a man came out of the door and
walked across the garden in my direction. Scarcely ten yards away he
stopped and stood still, looking steadily towards me. I cannot describe
the surge of panic which nearly overwhelmed me. I must be discovered. I
dared not stir an inch. My heart beat so violently that I felt sick. But
amid a tumult of emotion, reason, seated firmly on her throne,
whispered, 'Trust to the dark background.' I remained absolutely
motionless. For a long time the man and I remained opposite each other,
and every instant I expected him to spring forward. A vague idea crossed
my mind that I might silence him. 'Hush, I am a detective. We expect
that an officer will break out here to-night. I am waiting to catch
him.' Reason--scornful this time--replied: 'Surely a Transvaal detective
would speak Dutch. Trust to the shadow.' So I trusted, and after a spell
another man came out of the house, lighted a cigar, and both he and the
other walked off together. No sooner had they turned than a cat pursued
by a dog rushed into the bushes and collided with me. The startled
animal uttered a 'miaul' of alarm and darted back again, making a
horrible rustling. Both men stopped at once. But it was only the cat, as
they doubtless observed, and they passed out of the garden gate into the
town.

I looked at my watch. An hour had passed since I climbed the wall. Where
was my comrade? Suddenly I heard a voice from within the quadrangle say,
quite loud, 'All up.' I crawled back to the wall. Two officers were
walking up and down the other side jabbering Latin words, laughing and
talking all manner of nonsense--amid which I caught my name. I risked a
cough. One of the officers immediately began to chatter alone. The other
said slowly and clearly, '... cannot get out. The sentry suspects. It's
all up. Can you get back again?' But now all my fears fell from me at
once. To go back was impossible. I could not hope to climb the wall
unnoticed. Fate pointed onwards. Besides, I said to myself, 'Of course,
I shall be recaptured, but I will at least have a run for my money.' I
said to the officers, 'I shall go on alone.'

Now I was in the right mood for these undertakings--that is to say that,
thinking failure almost certain, no odds against success affected me.
All risks were less than the certainty. A glance at the plan (p. 182)
will show that the rate which led into the road was only a few yards
from another sentry. I said to myself, 'Toujours de l'audace:' put my
hat on my head, strode into the middle of the garden, walked past the
windows of the house without any attempt at concealment, and so went
through the gate and turned to the left. I passed the sentry at less
than five yards. Most of them knew me by sight. Whether he looked at me
or not I do not know, for I never turned my head. But after walking a
hundred yards and hearing no challenge, I knew that the second obstacle
had been surmounted. I was at large in Pretoria.

I walked on leisurely through the night humming a tune and choosing the
middle of the road. The streets were full of Burghers, but they paid no
attention to me. Gradually I reached the suburbs, and on a little bridge
I sat down to reflect and consider. I was in the heart of the enemy's
country. I knew no one to whom I could apply for succour. Nearly three
hundred miles stretched between me and Delagoa Bay. My escape must be
known at dawn. Pursuit would be immediate. Yet all exits were barred.
The town was picketed, the country was patrolled, the trains were
searched, the line was guarded. I had 75_l_. in my pocket and four slabs
of chocolate, but the compass and the map which might have guided me,
the opium tablets and meat lozenges which should have sustained me, were
in my friend's pockets in the States Model Schools. Worst of all, I
could not speak a word of Dutch or Kaffir, and how was I to get food or
direction?

But when hope had departed, fear had gone as well. I formed a plan. I
would find the Delagoa Bay Railway. Without map or compass I must follow
that in spite of the pickets. I looked at the stars. Orion shone
brightly. Scarcely a year ago he had guided me when lost in the desert
to the banks of the Nile. He had given me water. Now he should lead to
freedom. I could not endure the want of either.

After walking south for half a mile, I struck the railroad. Was it the
line to Delagoa Bay or the Pietersburg branch? If it were the former it
should run east. But so far as I could see this line ran northwards.
Still, it might be only winding its way out among the hills. I resolved
to follow it. The night was delicious. A cool breeze fanned my face and
a wild feeling of exhilaration took hold of me. At any rate, I was free,
if only for an hour. That was something. The fascination of the
adventure grew. Unless the stars in their courses fought for me I could
not escape. Where, then, was the need of caution? I marched briskly
along the line. Here and there the lights of a picket fire gleamed.
Every bridge had its watchers. But I passed them all, making very short
detours at the dangerous places, and really taking scarcely any
precautions. Perhaps that was the reason I succeeded.

As I walked I extended my plan. I could not march three hundred miles
to the frontier. I would board a train in motion and hide under the
seats, on the roof, on the couplings--anywhere. What train should I
take? The first, of course. After walking for two hours I perceived the
signal lights of a station. I left the line, and, circling round it, hid
in the ditch by the track about 200 yards beyond it. I argued that the
train would stop at the station and that it would not have got up too
much speed by the time it reached me. An hour passed. I began to grow
impatient. Suddenly I heard the whistle and the approaching rattle. Then
the great yellow head lights of the engine flashed into view. The train
waited five minutes at the station and started again with much noise and
steaming. I crouched by the track. I rehearsed the act in my mind. I
must wait until the engine had passed, otherwise I should be seen. Then
I must make a dash for the carriages.

The train started slowly, but gathered speed sooner than I had expected.
The flaring lights drew swiftly near. The rattle grew into a roar. The
dark mass hung for a second above me. The engine-driver silhouetted
against his furnace glow, the black profile of the engine, the clouds of
steam rushed past. Then I hurled myself on the trucks, clutched at
something, missed, clutched again, missed again, grasped some sort of
hand-hold, was swung off my feet--my toes bumping on the line, and with
a struggle seated myself on the couplings of the fifth truck from the
front of the train. It was a goods train, and the trucks were full of
sacks, soft sacks covered with coal dust. I crawled on top and burrowed
in among them. In five minutes I was completely buried. The sacks were
warm and comfortable. Perhaps the engine-driver had seen me rush up to
the train and would give the alarm at the next station: on the other
hand, perhaps not. Where was the train going to? Where would it be
unloaded? Would it be searched? Was it on the Delagoa Bay line? What
should I do in the morning? Ah, never mind that. Sufficient for the day
was the luck thereof. Fresh plans for fresh contingencies. I resolved
to sleep, nor can I imagine a more pleasing lullaby than the clatter of
the train that carries you at twenty miles an hour away from the enemy's
capital.

How long I slept I do not know, but I woke up suddenly with all feelings
of exhilaration gone, and only the consciousness of oppressive
difficulties heavy on me. I must leave the train before daybreak, so
that I could drink at a pool and find some hiding-place while it was
still dark. Another night I would board another train. I crawled from my
cosy hiding-place among the sacks and sat again on the couplings. The
train was running at a fair speed, but I felt it was time to leave it. I
took hold of the iron handle at the back of the truck, pulled strongly
with my left hand, and sprang. My feet struck the ground in two gigantic
strides, and the next instant I was sprawling in the ditch, considerably
shaken but unhurt. The train, my faithful ally of the night, hurried on
its journey.

It was still dark. I was in the middle of a wide valley, surrounded by
low hills, and carpeted with high grass drenched in dew. I searched for
water in the nearest gully, and soon found a clear pool. I was very
thirsty, but long after I had quenched my thirst I continued to drink,
that I might have sufficient for the whole day.

Presently the dawn began to break, and the sky to the east grew yellow
and red, slashed across with heavy black clouds. I saw with relief that
the railway ran steadily towards the sunrise. I had taken the right
line, after all.

Having drunk my fill, I set out for the hills, among which I hoped to
find some hiding-place, and as it became broad daylight I entered a
small grove of trees which grew on the side of a deep ravine. Here I
resolved to wait till dusk. I had one consolation: no one in the world
knew where I was--I did not know myself. It was now four o'clock.
Fourteen hours lay between me and the night. My impatience to proceed,
while I was still strong, doubled their length. At first it was terribly
cold, but by degrees the sun gained power, and by ten o'clock the heat
was oppressive. My sole companion was a gigantic vulture, who manifested
an extravagant interest in my condition, and made hideous and ominous
gurglings from time to time. From my lofty position I commanded a view
of the whole valley. A little tin-roofed town lay three miles to the
westward. Scattered farmsteads, each with a clump of trees, relieved the
monotony of the undulating ground. At the foot of the hill stood a
Kaffir kraal, and the figures of its inhabitants dotted the patches of
cultivation or surrounded the droves of goats and cows which fed on the
pasture. The railway ran through the middle of the valley, and I could
watch the passage of the various trains. I counted four passing each
way, and from this I drew the conclusion that the same number would run
by night. I marked a steep gradient up which they climbed very slowly,
and determined at nightfall to make another attempt to board one of
these. During the day I ate one slab of chocolate, which, with the heat,
produced a violent thirst. The pool was hardly half a mile away, but I
dared not leave the shelter of the little wood, for I could see the
figures of white men riding or walking occasionally across the valley,
and once a Boer came and fired two shots at birds close to my
hiding-place. But no one discovered me.

The elation and the excitement of the previous night had burnt away, and
a chilling reaction followed. I was very hungry, for I had had no dinner
before starting, and chocolate, though it sustains, does not satisfy. I
had scarcely slept, but yet my heart beat so fiercely and I was so
nervous and perplexed about the future that I could not rest. I thought
of all the chances that lay against me; I dreaded and detested more than
words can express the prospect of being caught and dragged back to
Pretoria. I do not mean that I would rather have died than have been
retaken, but I have often feared death for much less. I found no comfort
in any of the philosophical ideas which some men parade in their hours
of ease and strength and safety. They seemed only fair-weather friends.
I realised with awful force that no exercise of my own feeble wit and
strength could save me from my enemies, and that without the assistance
of that High Power which interferes in the eternal sequence of causes
and effects more often than we are always prone to admit, I could never
succeed. I prayed long and earnestly for help and guidance. My prayer,
as it seems to me, was swiftly and wonderfully answered, I cannot now
relate the strange circumstances which followed, and which changed my
nearly hopeless position into one of superior advantage. But after the
war is over I shall hope to lengthen this account, and so remarkable
will the addition be that I cannot believe the reader will complain.

The long day reached its close at last. The western clouds flushed into
fire; the shadows of the hills stretched out across the valley. A
ponderous Boer waggon, with its long team, crawled slowly along the
track towards the town. The Kaffirs collected their herds and drew
around their kraal. The daylight died, and soon it was quite dark.
Then, and not till then, I set forth, I hurried to the railway line,
pausing on my way to drink at a stream of sweet, cold water. I waited
for some time at the top of the steep gradient in the hope of catching a
train. But none came, and I gradually guessed, and I have since found
that I guessed right, that the train I had already travelled in was the
only one that ran at night. At last I resolved to walk on, and make, at
any rate, twenty miles of my journey. I walked for about six hours. How
far I travelled I do not know, but I do not think that it was very many
miles in the direct line. Every bridge was guarded by armed men; every
few miles were gangers' huts; at intervals there were stations with
villages clustering round them. All the veldt was bathed in the bright
rays of the full moon, and to avoid these dangerous places I had to make
wide circuits and often to creep along the ground. Leaving the railroad
I fell into bogs and swamps, and brushed through high grass dripping
with dew, so that I was drenched to the waist. I had been able to take
little exercise during my month's imprisonment, and I was soon tired out
with walking, as well as from want of food and sleep. I felt very
miserable when I looked around and saw here and there the lights of
houses, and thought of the warmth and comfort within them, but knew that
they only meant danger to me. After six or seven hours of walking I
thought it unwise to go further lest I should exhaust myself, so I lay
down in a ditch to sleep. I was nearly at the end of my tether.
Nevertheless, by the will of God, I was enabled to sustain myself during
the next few days, obtaining food at great risk here and there, resting
in concealment by day and walking only at night. On the fifth day I was
beyond Middelburg, so far as I could tell, for I dared not inquire nor
as yet approach the stations near enough to read the names. In a secure
hiding-place I waited for a suitable train, knowing that there is a
through service between Middelburg and Lourenco Marques.

Meanwhile there had been excitement in the States Model Schools,
temporarily converted into a military prison. Early on Wednesday
morning--barely twelve hours after I had escaped--my absence was
discovered--I think by Dr. Gunning. The alarm was given. Telegrams with
my description at great length were despatched along all the railways.
Three thousand photographs were printed. A warrant was issued for my
immediate arrest. Every train was strictly searched. Everyone was on the
watch. The worthy Boshof, who knew my face well, was hurried off to
Komati Poort to examine all and sundry people "with red hair" travelling
towards the frontier. The newspapers made so much of the affair that my
humble fortunes and my whereabouts were discussed in long columns of
print, and even in the crash of the war I became to the Boers a topic
all to myself. The rumours in part amused me. It was certain, said the
"Standard and Diggers' News," that I had escaped disguised as a woman.
The next day I was reported captured at Komati Poort dressed as a
Transvaal policeman. There was great delight at this, which was only
changed to doubt when other telegrams said that I had been arrested at
Brugsbank, at Middelburg, and at Bronkerspruit. But the captives proved
to be harmless people after all. Finally it was agreed that I had never
left Pretoria. I had--it appeared--changed clothes with a waiter, and
was now in hiding at the house of some British sympathiser in the
capital. On the strength of this all the houses of suspected persons
were searched from top to bottom, and these unfortunate people were, I
fear, put to a great deal of inconvenience. A special commission was
also appointed to investigate 'stringently' (a most hateful adjective in
such a connection) the causes 'which had rendered it possible for the
War Correspondent of the "Morning Post" to escape.'

The 'Volksstem' noticed as a significant fact that I had recently become
a subscriber to the State Library, and had selected Mill's essay 'On
Liberty.' It apparently desired to gravely deprecate prisoners having
access to such inflammatory literature. The idea will, perhaps, amuse
those who have read the work in question.

I find it very difficult in the face of the extraordinary efforts which
were made to recapture me, to believe that the Transvaal Government
seriously contemplated my release _before_ they knew I had escaped them.
Yet a telegram was swiftly despatched from Pretoria to all the
newspapers, setting forth the terms of a most admirable letter, in which
General Joubert explained the grounds which prompted him generously to
restore my liberty. I am inclined to think that the Boers hate being
beaten even in the smallest things, and always fight on the win, tie, or
wrangle principle; but in my case I rejoice I am not beholden to them,
and have not thus been disqualified from fighting.

All these things may provoke a smile of indifference, perhaps even of
triumph, after the danger is past; but during the days when I was lying
up in holes and corners, waiting for a good chance to board a train, the
causes that had led to them preyed more than I knew on my nerves. To be
an outcast, to be hunted, to lie under a warrant for arrest, to fear
every man, to have imprisonment--not necessarily military confinement
either--hanging overhead, to fly the light, to doubt the shadows--all
these things ate into my soul and have left an impression that will not
perhaps be easily effaced.

On the sixth day the chance I had patiently waited for came. I found a
convenient train duly labelled to Lourenco Marques standing in a siding.
I withdrew to a suitable spot for boarding it--for I dared not make the
attempt in the station--and, filling a bottle with water to drink on the
way, I prepared for the last stage of my journey.

The truck in which I ensconced myself was laden with great sacks of some
soft merchandise, and I found among them holes and crevices by means of
which I managed to work my way to the inmost recess. The hard floor was
littered with gritty coal dust, and made a most uncomfortable bed. The
heat was almost stifling. I was resolved, however, that nothing should
lure or compel me from my hiding-place until I reached Portuguese
territory. I expected the journey to take thirty-six hours; it dragged
out into two and a half days. I hardly dared sleep for fear of snoring.

I dreaded lest the trucks should be searched at Komati Poort, and my
anxiety as the train approached this neighbourhood was very great. To
prolong it we were shunted on to a siding for eighteen hours either at
Komati Poort or the station beyond it. Once indeed they began to search
my truck, and I heard the tarpaulin rustle as they pulled at it, but
luckily they did not search deep enough, so that, providentially
protected, I reached Delagoa Bay at last, and crawled forth from my
place of refuge and of punishment, weary, dirty, hungry, but free once
more.

Thereafter everything smiled. I found my way to the British Consul, Mr.
Ross, who at first mistook me for a fireman off one of the ships in the
harbour, but soon welcomed me with enthusiasm. I bought clothes, I
washed, I sat down to dinner with a real tablecloth and real glasses;
and fortune, determined not to overlook the smallest detail, had
arranged that the steamer 'Induna' should leave that very night for
Durban. As soon as the news of my arrival spread about the town, I
received many offers of assistance from the English residents, and lest
any of the Boer agents with whom Lourenco Marques is infested should
attempt to recapture me in neutral territory, nearly a dozen gentlemen
escorted me to the steamer armed with revolvers. It is from the cabin of
this little vessel, as she coasts along the sandy shores of Africa, that
I write the concluding lines of this letter, and the reader who may
persevere through this hurried account will perhaps understand why I
write them with a feeling of triumph, and better than triumph, a feeling
of pure joy.




CHAPTER XII

BACK TO THE BRITISH LINES


Frere: December 24, 1899.

The voyage of the "Induna" from Delagoa Bay to Durban was speedy and
prosperous, and on the afternoon of the 23rd we approached our port, and
saw the bold headland that shields it rising above the horizon to the
southward. An hour's steaming brought us to the roads. More than twenty
great transports and supply vessels lay at anchor, while three others,
crowded from end to end with soldiery, circled impatiently as they
waited for pilots to take them into the harbour. Our small vessel was
not long in reaching the jetty, and I perceived that a very considerable
crowd had gathered to receive us. But it was not until I stepped on
shore that I realised that I was myself the object of this honourable
welcome. I will not chronicle the details of what followed. It is
sufficient to say that many hundreds of the people of Durban took
occasion to express their joy at my tiny pinch of triumph over the
Boers, and that their enthusiasm was another sincere demonstration of
their devotion to the Imperial cause, and their resolve to carry the war
to an indisputable conclusion. After an hour of turmoil, which I frankly
admit I enjoyed extremely, I escaped to the train, and the journey to
Pietermaritzburg passed very quickly in the absorbing occupation of
devouring a month's newpapers and clearing my palate from the evil taste
of the exaggerations of Pretoria by a liberal antidote of our own
versions. I rested a day at Government House, and enjoyed long
conversations with Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson--the Governor under whose
wise administration Natal has become the most patriotic province of the
Empire. Moreover, I was fortunate in meeting Colonel Hime, the Prime
Minister of the Colony, a tall, grey, keen-eyed man, who talked only of
the importance of fighting this quarrel out to the end, and of the
obstinate determination of the people he represented to stand by the
Queen's Government through all the changing moods of fortune. I received
then and have since been receiving a great number of telegrams and
messages from all kinds of people and from all countries of the earth.
One gentleman invited me to shoot with him in Central Asia. Another
favoured me with a poem which he had written in my honour, and desired
me to have it set to music and published. A third--an American--wanted
me to plan a raid into Transvaal territory along the Delagoa Bay line to
arm the prisoners and seize the President. Five Liberal Electors of the
borough of Oldham wrote to say that they would give me their votes on a
future occasion 'irrespective of politics.' Young ladies sent me woollen
comforters. Old ladies forwarded their photographs; and hundreds of
people wrote kind letters, many of which in the stir of events I have
not yet been able to answer.

[Illustration: Map of THE THEATRE OF THE OPERATIONS IN NATAL]

The correspondence varied vastly in tone as well as in character, and I
cannot help quoting a couple of telegrams as specimens. The first was
from a worthy gentleman who, besides being a substantial farmer, is also
a member of the Natal Parliament. He wrote: 'My heartiest
congratulations on your wonderful and glorious deeds, which will send
such a thrill of pride and enthusiasm through Great Britain and the
United States of America, that the Anglo-Saxon race will be
irresistible.'

The intention of the other, although his message was shorter, was
equally plain.

'_London, December 30th_.--Best friends here hope you won't go making
further ass of yourself.--M'NEILL.'

This shows, I think, how widely human judgment may differ even in regard
to ascertained facts.

I found time to visit the hospitals--long barracks which before the war
were full of healthy men, and are now crammed with sick and wounded.
Everything seemed beautifully arranged, and what money could buy and
care provide was at the service of those who had sustained hurt in the
public contention. But for all that I left with a feeling of relief.
Grim sights and grimmer suggestions were at every corner. Beneath a
verandah a dozen wounded officers, profusely swathed in bandages,
clustered in a silent brooding group. Nurses waited quietly by shut
doors that none might disturb more serious cases. Doctors hurried with
solemn faces from one building to another. Here and there men pushed
stretchers on rubber-tyred wheels about the paths, stretchers on which
motionless forms lay shrouded in blankets. One, concerning whom I asked,
had just had part of his skull trepanned: another had suffered
amputation. And all this pruning and patching up of broken men to win
them a few more years of crippled life caught one's throat like the
penetrating smell of the iodoform. Nor was I sorry to hasten away by the
night mail northwards to the camps. It was still dark as we passed
Estcourt, but morning had broken when the train reached Frere, and I
got out and walked along the line inquiring for my tent, and found it
pitched by the side of the very same cutting down which I had fled for
my life from the Boer marksmen, and only fifty yards from the spot on
which I had surrendered myself prisoner. So after much trouble and
adventure I came safely home again to the wars. Six weeks had passed
since the armoured train had been destroyed. Many changes had taken
place. The hills which I had last seen black with the figures of the
Boer riflemen were crowned with British pickets. The valley in which we
had lain exposed to their artillery fire was crowded with the white
tents of a numerous army. In the hollows and on the middle slopes canvas
villages gleamed like patches of snowdrops. The iron bridge across the
Blue Krantz River lay in a tangle of crimson-painted wreckage across the
bottom of the ravine, and the railway ran over an unpretentious but
substantial wooden structure. All along the line near the station fresh
sidings had been built, and many trains concerned in the business of
supply occupied them. When I had last looked on the landscape it meant
fierce and overpowering danger, with the enemy on all sides. Now I was
in the midst of a friendly host. But though much was altered some things
remained the same. The Boers still held Colenso. Their forces still
occupied the free soil of Natal. It was true that thousands of troops
had arrived to make all efforts to change the situation. It was true
that the British Army had even advanced ten miles. But Ladysmith was
still locked in the strong grip of the invader, and as I listened I
heard the distant booming of the same bombardment which I had heard two
months before, and which all the time I was wandering had been
remorselessly maintained and patiently borne.

Looking backward over the events of the last two months, it is
impossible not to admire the Boer strategy. From the beginning they have
aimed at two main objects: to exclude the war from their own
territories, and to confine it to rocky and broken regions suited to
their tactics. Up to the present time they have been entirely
successful. Though the line of advance northwards through the Free
State lay through flat open country, and they could spare few men to
guard it, no British force has assailed this weak point. The 'farmers'
have selected their own ground and compelled the generals to fight them
on it. No part of the earth's surface is better adapted to Boer tactics
than Northern Natal, yet observe how we have been gradually but steadily
drawn into it, until the mountains have swallowed up the greater part of
the whole Army Corps. By degrees we have learned the power of our
adversary. Before the war began men said: 'Let them come into Natal and
attack us if they dare. They would go back quicker than they would
come.' So the Boers came and fierce fighting took place, but it was the
British who retired. Then it was said: 'Never mind. The forces were not
concentrated. Now that all the Natal Field Force is massed at Ladysmith,
there will be no mistake.' But still, in spite of Elandslaagte,
concerning which the President remarked: 'The foolhardy shall be
punished,' the Dutch advance continued. The concentrated Ladysmith
force, twenty squadrons, six batteries, and eleven battalions, sallied
out to meet them. The Staff said: 'By to-morrow night there will not be
a Boer within twenty miles of Ladysmith.' But by the evening of October
30 the whole of Sir George White's command had been flung back into the
town with three hundred men killed and wounded, and nearly a thousand
prisoners. Then every one said: 'But now we have touched bottom. The
Ladysmith position is the _ne plus ultra_. So far they have gone; but no
further!' Then it appeared that the Boers were reaching out round the
flanks. What was their design? To blockade Ladysmith? Ridiculous and
impossible! However, send a battalion to Colenso to keep the
communications open, and make assurance doubly sure. So the Dublin
Fusiliers were railed southwards, and entrenched themselves at Colenso.
Two days later the Boers cut the railway south of Ladysmith at Pieters,
shelled the small garrison out of Colenso, shut and locked the gate on
the Ladysmith force, and established themselves in the almost
impregnable positions north of the Tugela. Still there was no
realisation of the meaning of the investment. It would last a week, they
said, and all the clever correspondents laughed at the veteran Bennet
Burleigh for his hurry to get south before the door was shut. Only a
week of isolation! Two months have passed. But all the time we have
said: 'Never mind; wait till our army comes. We will soon put a stop to
the siege--for it soon became more than a blockade--of Ladysmith.'

Then the army began to come. Its commander, knowing the disadvantageous
nature of the country, would have preferred to strike northwards through
the Free State and relieve Ladysmith at Bloemfontein. But the pressure
from home was strong. First two brigades, then four, the artillery of
two divisions, and a large mounted force were diverted from the Cape
Colony and drawn into Natal. Finally, Sir Redvers Buller had to follow
the bulk of his army. Then the action of Colenso was fought, and in
that unsatisfactory engagement the British leaders learned that the
blockade of Ladysmith was no unstable curtain that could be brushed
aside, but a solid wall. Another division is hurried to the mountains,
battery follows battery, until at the present moment the South Natal
Field Force numbers two cavalry and six infantry brigades, and nearly
sixty guns. It is with this force that we hope to break through the
lines of Boers who surround Ladysmith. The army is numerous, powerful,
and high-spirited. But the task before it is one which no man can regard
without serious misgivings.

Whoever selected Ladysmith as a military centre must sleep uneasily at
nights. I remember hearing the question of a possible war with the Boers
discussed by several officers of high rank. The general impression was
that Ladysmith was a tremendous strategic position, which dominated the
lines of approach both into the Transvaal and the Orange Free State,
whereas of course it does nothing of the sort. The fact that it stands
at the junction of the railways may have encouraged the belief, but
both lines of advance are barred by a broken and tangled country
abounding in positions of extraordinary strength. Tactically Ladysmith
may be strongly defensible, politically it has become invested with much
importance, but for strategic purposes it is absolutely worthless. It is
worse. It is a regular trap. The town and cantonment stand in a huge
circle of hills which enclasp it on all sides like the arms of a giant,
and though so great is the circle that only guns of the heavier class
can reach the town from the heights, once an enemy has established
himself on these heights it is beyond the power of the garrison to
dislodge him, or perhaps even to break out. Not only do the surrounding
hills keep the garrison in, but they also form a formidable barrier to
the advance of a relieving force. Thus it is that the ten thousand
troops in Ladysmith are at this moment actually an encumbrance. To
extricate them--I write advisedly, to endeavour to extricate
them--brigades and divisions must be diverted from all the other easy
lines of advance, and Sir Redvers Buller, who had always deprecated any
attempt to hold Natal north of the Tugela, is compelled to attack the
enemy on their own terms and their own ground.

What are those terms? The northern side of the Tugela River at nearly
every point commands the southern bank. Ranges of high hills strewn with
boulders and dotted with trees rise abruptly from the water, forming a
mighty rampart for the enemy. Before this the river, a broad torrent
with few and narrow fords and often precipitous banks, flows rapidly--a
great moat. And before the river again, on our side stretches a smooth,
undulating, grassy country--a regular glacis. To defend the rampart and
sweep the glacis are gathered, according to my information derived in
Pretoria, twelve thousand, according to the Intelligence Branch fifteen
thousand, of the best riflemen in the world armed with beautiful
magazine rifles, supplied with an inexhaustible store of ammunition, and
supported by fifteen or twenty excellent quick-firing guns, all
artfully entrenched and concealed. The drifts of the river across which
our columns must force their way are all surrounded with trenches and
rifle pits, from which a converging fire may be directed, and the actual
bottom of the river is doubtless obstructed by entanglements of barbed
wire and other devices. But when all these difficulties have been
overcome the task is by no means finished. Nearly twenty miles of broken
country, ridge rising beyond ridge, kopje above kopje, all probably
already prepared for defence, intervene between the relieving army and
the besieged garrison.

Such is the situation, and so serious are the dangers and difficulties
that I have heard it said in the camp that on strict military grounds
Ladysmith should be left to its fate; that a division should remain to
hold this fine open country south of the Tugela and protect Natal; and
that the rest should be hurried off to the true line of advance into the
Free State from the south. Though I recognise all this, and do not deny
its force, I rejoice that what is perhaps a strategically unwise
decision has been taken. It is not possible to abandon a brave garrison
without striking a blow to rescue them. The attempt will cost several
thousand lives; and may even fail; but it must be made on the grounds of
honour, if not on those of policy.

We are going to try almost immediately, for there is no time to be lost.
'The sands,' to quote Mr. Chamberlain on another subject, 'are running
down in the glass.' Ladysmith has stood two months' siege and
bombardment. Food and ammunition stores are dwindling. Disease is daily
increasing. The strain on the garrison has been, in spite of their pluck
and stamina, a severe one. How long can they hold out? It is difficult
to say precisely, because after the ordinary rations are exhausted
determined men will eat horses and rats and beetles, and such like odds
and ends, and so continue the defence. But another month must be the
limit of their endurance, and then if no help comes Sir George White
will have to fire off all his ammunition, blow up his heavy guns, burn
waggons and equipment, and sally out with his whole force in a fierce
endeavour to escape southwards. Perhaps half the garrison might succeed
in reaching our lines, but the rest, less the killed and wounded, would
be sent to occupy the new camp at Waterfall, which has been already laid
out--such is the intelligent anticipation of the enemy--for their
accommodation. So we are going to try to force the Tugela within the
week, and I dare say my next letter will give you some account of our
fortunes.

Meanwhile all is very quiet in the camps. From Chieveley, where there
are two brigades of infantry, a thousand horse of sorts, including the
13th Hussars, and a dozen naval guns, it is quite possible to see the
Boer positions, and the outposts live within range of each other's
rifles. Yesterday I rode out to watch the evening bombardment which we
make on their entrenchments with the naval 4.7-inch guns. From the low
hill on which the battery is established the whole scene is laid bare.
The Boer lines run in a great crescent along the hills. Tier above tier
of trenches have been scored along their sides, and the brown streaks
run across the grass of the open country south of the river. After tea
in the captain's cabin--I should say tent--Commander Limpus of the
'Terrible' kindly invited me to look through the telescope and mark the
fall of the shots.

The glass was one of great power, and I could plainly see the figures of
the Boers walking about in twos and threes, sitting on the embankments,
or shovelling away to heighten them. We selected one particular group
near a kraal, the range of which had been carefully noted, and the great
guns were slowly brought to bear on the unsuspecting target. I looked
through the spy-hole at the tiny picture--three dirty beehives for the
kraal, a long breastwork of newly thrown up earth, six or seven
miniature men gathered into a little bunch, two others skylarking on the
grass behind the trench, apparently engaged in a boxing match. Then I
turned to the guns. A naval officer craned along the seventeen-feet
barrel, peering through the telescopic sights. Another was pencilling
some calculations as to wind and light and other intricate details. The
crew, attentive, stood around. At last all was done. I looked back to
the enemy. The group was still intact. The boxers were still
playing--one had pushed the other down. A solitary horseman had also
come into the picture and was riding slowly across. The desire of murder
rose in my heart. Now for a bag! Bang! I jumped at least a foot,
disarranging the telescope, but there was plenty of time to reset it
while the shell was hissing and roaring its way through nearly five
miles of air. I found the kraal again and the group still there, but all
motionless and alert, like startled rabbits. Then they began to bob into
the earth, one after the other. Suddenly, in the middle of the kraal,
there appeared a huge flash, a billowy ball of smoke, and clouds of
dust. Bang! I jumped again; the second gun had fired. But before this
shell could reach the trenches a dozen little figures scampered away,
scattering in all directions. Evidently the first had not been without
effect. Yet when I turned the glass to another part of the defences the
Boers were working away stolidly, and only those near the explosion
showed any signs of disturbance.

The bombardment continued for half an hour, the shells being flung
sometimes into the trenches, sometimes among the houses of Colenso, and
always directed with marvellous accuracy. At last the guns were covered
up again in their tarpaulins, the crowd of military spectators broke up
and dispersed amid the tents, and soon it became night.




CHAPTER XIII

CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR


Frere: January 4, 1900.

December 25.--Christmas Day! 'Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth,
peace and goodwill towards men.' So no great shells were fired into the
Boer entrenchments at dawn, and the hostile camps remained tranquil
throughout the day. Even the pickets forbore to snipe each other, and
both armies attended divine service in the morning and implored Heaven's
blessing on their righteous causes. In the afternoon the British held
athletic sports, an impromptu military tournament, and a gymkhana, all
of which caused much merriment and diversion, and the Boers profited by
the cessation of the shell fire to shovel away at their trenches. In the
evening there were Christmas dinners in our camp--roast beef, plum
pudding, a quart of beer for everyone, and various smoking concerts
afterwards. I cannot describe the enemy's festivities.

But since that peaceful day we have had desultory picket firing, and the
great guns in the naval battery have spoken whenever an opportunity
presented itself. The opposing outpost lines are drawn so far apart that
with the best intentions they can scarcely harm each other. But the long
range of the smallbore rifles encourages fancy shooting, so that there
is often a brisk fusillade and no one any the worse. On our side we have
only had one infantry soldier wounded. We do not know what the fortunes
of the Boers may have been, but it is probable that they lose a few men
every day from the bombardment, and certain that on Monday last there
were three burghers killed and several wounded and one horse. It
happened in this wise: beyond the strong Infantry pickets which remain
in position always, there is a more or less extended line of cavalry
outposts, which are sprinkled all along the kopjes to the east and west
of the camp, and are sometimes nearly three miles from it. On the Monday
in question--New Year's Day to wit--200 Boers set forth and attacked our
picket on the extreme right. The picket, which was composed of the South
African Light Horse, fell back with discretion, and the Boers following
without their usual caution did not observe that eight troopers had been
dropped behind among the rocks and ledges of a donga; so that when
twelve of them attempted to make their way up this natural zigzag
approach in order to fire upon the retiring picket they were themselves
received at 400 yards by a well-directed sputter of musketry, and were
glad to make off with five riderless horses, two men upon one horse, and
leaving three lying quite still on the ground. Thereafter the picket
continued to retreat unmolested.

Indeed, the New Year opened well, and many little things seem to favour
the hope that it is the turning point of the war. Besides our tiny
skirmish on the right, Captain Gough, of the 16th Lancers, on the left,
made his way along a convenient depression, almost to the river bank,
and discovered Boers having tea in their camp at scarcely 1,800 yards.
Forthwith he opened fire, causing great commotion; hurried upsetting of
the tea, scrambling into tents for rifle, 'confounded impudence of these
cursed rooineks! Come quickly Hans, Pieter, O'Brien, and John Smith, and
let us mend their manners. What do they mean by harassing us?' And in a
very few minutes there was a wrathful rattle of firing all along the
trenches on the hillside, which spread far away to the right and left as
other Boers heard it. What the deuce is this? Another attack! Till at
last the Maxim shell gun caught the infection, and began pom, pom, pom!
pom, pom, pom! and so on at intervals. Evidently much angry passion was
aroused in the Boer camp, and all because Captain Gough had been trying
his luck at long range volleys. The situation might have become serious;
the event was, however, fortunate. No smoke betrayed the position of the
scouting party; no bullets found them. A heavy shower of metal sang and
whistled at random in the air. The donga afforded an excellent line of
retreat, and when the adventurous patrol had retired safely into the
camp they were amused to hear the Boers still busy with the supposed
chastisement of their audacious assailants.

But these are small incidents which, though they break the monotony of
the camp, do not alter nor, each by itself, greatly accelerate the
course of the war. Good news came in on New Year's Day from other
quarters. Near Belmont the Canadians and Queenslanders fell on a raiding
or reckless commando, took them on at their own game, hunted them and
shot them among the rocks until the white flag was upon the right side
for once and hoisted in honest surrender. Forty prisoners and twenty
dead and wounded; excellent news to all of us; but causing amazing joy
in Natal, where every colonist goes into an ecstacy over every crumb of
British success.

Moreover, we have good news from East London. General Gatacre is
stolidly and patiently repairing the opening misfortune of his
campaign: has learned by experience much of the new conditions of the
war. Strange that the Boers did not advance after their victory;
stranger still that they retired from Dordrecht. Never mind whether
their stillness be due to national cautiousness or good defensive
arrangements. Since they don't want Dordrecht, let us go there; and
there we go accordingly. Out of this there arises on New Year's Day a
successful skirmish, in the account of which the name of De Montmorency
is mentioned. In Egypt the name was associated with madcap courage. Here
they talk of prudent skill. The double reputation should be valuable.

And, perhaps, the best news of all comes from Arundel, near Colesberg,
where Generals French and Brabazon with the cavalry column--for it is
nearly all mounted--are gradually sidling and coaxing the Boers back out
of the Colony. They are a powerful combination: French's distinguished
military talents, and Brabazon's long and deep experience of war. So,
with this column there are no frontal attacks--perhaps they are luckier
than we in respect of ground--no glorious victories (which the enemy
call victories, too); very few people hurt and a steady advance, as we
hear on the first day of the year, right up to Colesberg.

Perhaps the tide of war has really begun to turn. Perhaps 1900 is to
mark the beginning of a century of good luck and good sense in British
policy in Africa. When I was a prisoner at Pretoria the Boers showed me
a large green pamphlet Mr. Reitz had written. It was intended to be an
account of the Dutch grounds of quarrel with the English, and was called
'A Century of Wrong.' Much was distortion and exaggeration, but a
considerable part dealt with acknowledged facts. Wrong in plenty there
has been on both sides, but latterly more on theirs than on ours; and
the result is war--bitter, bloody war tearing the land in twain;
dividing brother from brother, friend from friend, and opening a
terrible chasm between the two white races who must live side by side as
long as South Africa stands above the ocean, and by whose friendly
co-operation alone it can enjoy the fullest measure of prosperity. 'A
century of wrong!' British ignorance of South Africa, Boer ignorance of
civilisation, British intolerance, Boer brutality, British interference,
Boer independence, clash, clash, clash, all along the line! and then
fanatical, truth-scorning missionaries, experimental philanthropists,
high-handed jingo administrators, colonial ministers who disliked all
colonies on the glorious principles of theoretic liberalism, bad
generals thinking of their own reputations, not of their country's
success, and a series of miserable events recalled sufficiently well by
their names--Slagter's Nek, Kimberley, Moshesh, Majuba, Jameson, all
these arousing first resentment, then loathing, then contempt, and,
finally, a Great Desire, crystallising into a Great Conspiracy for a
United Dutch South Africa, free from the flag that has elsewhere been
regarded as the flag of freedom. And so inevitably to war--war with
peculiar sadness and horror, in which the line of cleavage springs
between all sorts of well-meaning people that used to know one another
in friendship; but war which, whatever its fortunes, certainly sweeps
the past into obscurity. We have done with 'a century of wrong.' God
send us now 'a century of right.'




CHAPTER XIV

A MILITARY DEMONSTRATION AND SOME GOOD NEWS


Chieveley: January 8, 1900.

BOOM. Thud, thud. Boom. Boom. Thud--thud thud--thud thud thud
thud--boom. A long succession of queer moaning vibrations broke the
stillness of the sleeping camp. I became suddenly awake. It was two
o'clock on the morning of January 6. The full significance of the sounds
came with consciousness. We had all heard them before--heavy cannonading
at Ladysmith. They were at it again. How much longer would the heroic
garrison be persecuted?

I turned to rest once more. But the distant guns forbade sleep. The
reports grew momentarily more frequent, until at last they merged into
one general roar. This was new. Never before had we heard such
bombarding. Louder and louder swelled the cannonade, and presently the
deep note of the heavy artillery could scarcely be distinguished above
the incessant discharges of field pieces. So I lay and listened. What
was happening eighteen miles away over the hills? Another bayonet attack
by the garrison? Or perhaps a general sortie: or perhaps, but this
seemed scarcely conceivable, the Boers had hardened their hearts and
were delivering the long expected, long threatened assault.

An officer came to my tent with the daylight. Something big happening at
Ladysmith--hell of a cannonade--never heard anything like it--worse than
Colenso--what do you think of it? But I was without opinion; nor did I
find anyone anxious to pronounce. Meanwhile the firing was maintained,
and we breakfasted to its accompaniment. Until half-past ten there was
not the slightest diminution or intermission. As the day advanced,
however, it gradually died away, showing either that the fight was over,
or, as it afterwards turned out, that it had passed into the hands of
riflemen.

We all spent an anxious morning speculating on the reason and result of
the engagement. About noon there arrived an unofficial message by
heliograph, which the young officer at the signal station confided to
his friends. It was brief. 'General attack all sides by
Boers--everywhere repulsed--but fight still going on.'

At one o'clock, just as were sitting down to luncheon, came an orderly
at full gallop with the order for the whole force in Chieveley to turn
out at once. Whereat the camp, till then dormant under the midday sun,
sprang to life like a disturbed ant-hill. Some said we were about to
make a regular attack on Colenso, while many of the covering army of
Boers were busy at Ladysmith. Others suggested a night assault--with the
bayonet. The idea was very pleasant to the hearts of the infantry. But I
soon learned that no serious operation was in contemplation, and that
the force was merely to make a demonstration before Colenso with the
object of bringing some of the Boers back from Ladysmith, and of so
relieving the pressure on Sir George White.

The demonstration was, however, a very imposing affair. First of all the
mounted forces threw out a long fringe of patrols all along the front.
Behind this the squadrons made a line of black bars. The mounted
infantry, Bethune's Horse, and the Natal Carabineers formed the left:
the South African Light Horse the centre, and the 13th Hussars and
Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry twisted back to watch the right. Behind
this curtain marched the infantry, Hildyard's brigade on the right,
Barton's on the left, line after line of brown men ten yards apart, two
hundred yards between the lines, spreading in this open formation over a
wide expanse of country, and looking a mighty swarm. Behind these again
dark blocks of artillery and waggons moved slowly forward. Behind, and
above all, the naval battery began to throw its shells into the village.

The cavalry soon cleared the front, the squadrons wheeled about, the
patrols retreated. The South African Light Horse, with whom I now have
the honour to serve, were stationed in rear of Gun Hill, a rocky
eminence so called because a heavy battery was placed there in the last
engagement. From this feature an excellent view of the operation was
afforded, and thence we watched the whole development.

Sir Francis Clery, General Hildyard, and their respective Staffs had
also taken their position on Gun Hill, so that its crest was thickly
crowded with figures peering exhaustively through field glasses and
telescopes. The infantry, who were now moving steadily forward, were
literally sprinkled all over the country.

In the text-books compiled from the results of past experience the
military student reads that armies divide to march and concentrate to
fight. 'Nous avons change tout cela.' Here we concentrate to march and
disperse to fight. I asked General Hildyard what formation his brigade
was in. He replied, 'Formation for taking advantage of ant-heaps.' This
is a valuable addition to the infantry drill.

Meanwhile the demonstration was in progress, and not without effect.
Only the well-informed realised that it was a demonstration, and the
privates, as they walked phlegmatically on, did not know that they were
not about to be plunged into another deluge of fire.

'You watch it, Bill,' I heard one man remark, 'we'll have that ----
laughing hyena' (the Vickers-Maxim gun) 'let off at us in a minute.'

The Boers, too, seemed to be deceived, or, at any rate, doubtful, for we
could see them in twos and threes, and presently in fives and sixes,
galloping into their trenches, which were evidently deep enough to
shelter horse and man. It was most probable that larger bodies had
already begun their countermarch from Ladysmith. We were not wasting our
time or our trouble.

The infantry halted about three thousand yards from the enemy's
position, and the artillery, which numbered fourteen guns, trotted
forward and came into action. All these movements, which had been very
deliberately made, had taken a long time, and it was now nearly five
o'clock. Dark thunder-clouds and a drizzle of rain descended on the
silent Boer position, and the range of hills along which it stretched
lay in deep shadow as if under the frown of Heaven. Our batteries also
were ranged in this gloomy zone, but with the reserves and on the hill
whence we were watching there was bright sunlight.

The bombardment and the storm broke over the Boer entrenchments
simultaneously. A swift succession of fierce red flashes stabbed out
from the patches of gunners, teams, and waggons, and with yellow gleams
soft white balls of smoke appeared among the houses of Colenso and above
the belts of scrub which extend on either side. The noise of explosions
of gun and projectile came back to us on the hill in regular order, and
above them rang the startling discharges of the 4.7-inch naval guns,
whose shells in bursting raised huge brown dust clouds from houses,
trench, or hillside. At the same time the thunder began to rumble, and
vivid streaks of blue light scarred the sombre hills. We watched the
impressive spectacle in safety and the sunlight.

Besides creating a diversion in favour of Ladysmith the object of our
demonstration was to make the enemy reveal his position and especially
the positions of his guns. In this latter respect, however, we were
defeated. Though they must have suffered some loss and more annoyance
from the bombardment, and though much of the infantry was well within
the range of their guns, the Boers declined to be drawn, and during two
hours' shelling they did not condescend to give a single shot in reply.
It needs a patient man to beat a Dutchman at waiting. So about seven
o'clock we gave up trying.

It had been intended to leave the troops on the enemy's front until
night and withdraw them after dark, the idea being to make him anxious
lest a night attack should be designed. But as some of the battalions
had turned out without having their dinners, Sir Francis Clery decided
not to keep them under arms longer, and the whole force withdrew
gracefully and solemnly to camp.

Here we found news from Ladysmith. 'Enemy everywhere repulsed for the
present.' For the present! Hold on only a little longer, gallant
garrison, and if it be in the power of 25,000 British soldiers to help
you, your troubles and privations shall soon be ended--and what a dinner
we will have together then!

That night we tried to congratulate or encourage Ladysmith, and the
searchlight perseveringly flashed the Morse code on the clouds. But
before it had been working half an hour the Boer searchlight saw it and
hurried to interfere, flickering, blinking, and crossing to try to
confuse the dots and dashes, and appeared to us who watched this curious
aerial battle--Briton and Boer fighting each other in the sky with
vibrations of ether--to confuse them very effectually.

Next morning, however, the sun came out for uncertain periods, and
Ladysmith was able to tell her own story briefly and jerkily, but still
a very satisfactory account.

At two o'clock, according to Sir George White, the Boers in great
numbers, evidently reinforced from Colenso, surprised the pickets and
began a general attack on the outpost line round the town, particularly
directing their efforts on Caesar's Camp and Waggon Hill. The fighting
became very close, and the enemy, who had after all hardened their
hearts, pushed the attack with extraordinary daring and vigour. Some of
the trenches on Waggon Hill were actually taken three times by the
assailants. But every time General Hamilton--the skilful Hamilton as he
has been called--flung them out again by counterattacks. At one place,
indeed, they succeeded in holding on all day, nor was it until the dusk
of the evening, when the rain and thunderstorm which we saw hanging over
Colenso broke on Ladysmith, that Colonel Park led forth the Devon
Regiment--who, having had half their officers killed or wounded by a
shell some days before, were probably spiteful--and drove the Dutchmen
helter skelter at the point of the bayonet. So that by night the Boers
were repulsed at every point, with necessarily great slaughter, greater
at any rate than on our side. Their first experience of assaulting!
Encore!

Battles now-a-days are fought mainly with firearms, but no troops,
however brave, however well directed, can enjoy the full advantage of
their successes if they exclude the possibilities of cold steel and are
not prepared to maintain what they have won, if necessary with their
fists. The moral strength of an army which welcomes the closest personal
encounter must exceed that of an army which depends for its victories
only on being able to kill its foes at a distance. The bayonet is the
most powerful weapon we possess out here. Firearms kill many of the
enemy, but it is the white weapon that makes them run away. Rifles can
inflict the loss, but victory depends, for us at least, on the bayonets.

Of the losses we as yet know nothing, except that Lord Ava is seriously
wounded, a sad item for which the only consolation is that the Empire is
worth the blood of its noblest citizens. But for the general result we
rejoice. Ladysmith, too, is proud and happy. Only ten thousand of us,
and look what we do! A little reproachfully, perhaps; for it is dull
work fighting week after week without alcohol or green vegetables.

Well, it looks as if their trials were very nearly over. Sir Charles
Warren's Division marches to Frere to-day. All the hospitals have been
cleared ready for those who may need them. If all's well we shall have
removed the grounds of reproach by this day week. The long interval
between the acts has come to an end. The warning bell has rung. Take
your seats, ladies and gentlemen. The curtain is about to rise.

'High time, too,' say the impatient audience, and with this I must
agree; for, looking from my tent as I write, I can see the smoke-puff
bulging on Bulwana Hill as 'Long Tom' toils through his seventy-second
day of bombardment, and the white wisp seems to beckon the relieving
army onward.




CHAPTER XV

THE DASH FOR POTGIETER'S FERRY


Spearman's Hill: January 13, 1900.

Secrets usually leak out in a camp, no matter how many people are
employed to keep them. For two days before January 10 rumours of an
impending move circulated freely. There are, moreover, certain signs by
which anyone who is acquainted with the under machinery of an army can
tell when operations are imminent. On the 6th we heard that orders had
been given to clear the Pietermaritzburg hospitals of all patients,
evidently because new inmates were expected. On the 7th it was reported
that the hospitals were all clear. On the 8th an ambulance train emptied
the field hospitals at Frere, and that same evening there arrived seven
hundred civilian stretcher-bearers--brave men who had volunteered to
carry wounded under fire, and whom the army somewhat ungratefully
nicknames the 'Body-snatchers.' Nor were these grim preparations the
only indications of approaching activity. The commissariat told tales of
accumulations of supplies--twenty-one days' packed in waggons--of the
collection of transport oxen and other details, meaningless by
themselves, but full of significance when viewed side by side with other
circumstances. Accordingly I was scarcely surprised when, chancing to
ride from Chieveley to Frere on the afternoon of the 10th, I discovered
the whole of Sir Charles Warren's division added to the already
extensive camp.

This was the first move of the complicated operations by which Sir
Redvers Buller designed to seize the passage of the Tugela at
Potgieter's Ferry: Warren (seven battalions, comprising Coke's and
Woodgate's Brigades and five batteries) from Estcourt to Frere. When I
got back to Chieveley all was bustle in the camp. Orders to march at
dawn had arrived. At last the long pause was finished; waiting was
over; action had begun.

So far as Chieveley was concerned, the following was the programme:
Barton's Brigade to entrench itself strongly and to remain before
Colenso, covering the head of the line of communications, and
demonstrating against the position; Hildyard's Brigade to move westward
at daylight on the 11th to Pretorius's Farm; cavalry, guns, and baggage
(miles of it) to take a more circuitous route to the same place. Thither
also Hart was to move from Frere, joining Hildyard and forming Clery's
division. Warren was to rest until the next day. The force for the
relief of Ladysmith, exclusive of Barton's Brigade and communication
troops, was organised as follows:

     _Commander-in-Chief_: SIR REDVERS BULLER

     CLERY'S DIVISION        Warren's Division
       consisting of           consisting of

     Hildyard's Brigade,     Lyttelton's Brigade,
     Hart's Brigade,         Woodgate's Brigade,
     1 squad. 13th Hussars,  1 squad. 15th Hussars,
     3 batteries,            3 batteries,
     R.E.                    R.E.

     CORPS TROOPS

     Coke's Brigade (3 battalions),
     1 field battery R.A.,
     1 howitzer battery R.A.,
     2 4.7-inch naval guns and Naval Brigade,
     8 long-range naval 12-pounder guns,
     1 squadron 13th Hussars,
     R.E., &c.


     CAVALRY (DUNDONALD)

     1st Royal Dragoons.
     14th Hussars.
     4 squadrons South African Light Horse.
     1 squadron Imperial Light Horse.
     Bethune's Mounted Infantry.
     Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry.
     1 squadron Natal Carabineers.
     1 squadron Natal Police.
     1 company K.R.R. Mounted Infantry.
     6 machine guns.

Or, to sum the whole up briefly, 19,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 60
guns.

All were busy with their various tasks--Barton's Brigade entrenching,
making redoubts and shelter pits, or block-houses of railway iron; the
other brigades packing up ready for the march as night closed in. In
the morning we started. The cavalry were responsible for the safety of
the baggage convoy, and with Colonel Byng, who commanded the column, I
waited and watched the almost interminable procession defile. Ox waggons
piled high with all kinds of packages, and drawn sometimes by ten or
twelve pairs of oxen, mule waggons, Scotch carts, ambulance waggons,
with huge Red Cross flags, ammunition carts, artillery, slaughter
cattle, and, last of all, the naval battery, with its two enormous
4.7-inch pieces, dragged by long strings of animals, and guarded by
straw-hatted khaki-clad bluejackets, passed in imposing array, with here
and there a troop of cavalry to protect them or to prevent straggling.
And here let me make an unpleasant digression. The vast amount of
baggage this army takes with it on the march hampers its movements and
utterly precludes all possibility of surprising the enemy. I have never
before seen even officers accommodated with tents on service, though
both the Indian frontier and the Soudan lie under a hotter sun than
South Africa. But here to day, within striking distance of a mobile
enemy whom we wish to circumvent, every private soldier has canvas
shelter, and the other arrangements are on an equally elaborate scale.
The consequence is that roads are crowded, drifts are blocked, marching
troops are delayed, and all rapidity of movement is out of the question.
Meanwhile, the enemy completes the fortification of his positions, and
the cost of capturing them rises. It is a poor economy to let a soldier
live well for three days at the price of killing him on the fourth.[1]

We marched off with the rearguard at last, and the column twisted away
among the hills towards the west. After marching about three miles we
reached the point where the track from Frere joined the track from
Chieveley, and here two streams of waggons flowed into one another like
the confluence of rivers. Shortly after this all the mounted forces
with the baggage were directed to concentrate at the head of the column,
and, leaving the tardy waggons to toil along at their own pace, we
trotted swiftly forward. Pretorius's Farm was reached at noon--a
tin-roofed house, a few sheds, a dozen trees, and an artificial pond
filled to the brim by the recent rains. Here drawn up in the spacious
plain were the Royal Dragoons--distinguished from the Colonial Corps by
the bristle of lances bare of pennons above their ranks and by their
great horses--one squadron of the already famous Imperial Light Horse,
and Bethune's Mounted Infantry. The Dragoons remained at the farm, which
was that night to be the camping place of Clery's division. But all the
rest of the mounted forces, about a thousand men, and a battery of
artillery were hurried forward to seize the bridge across the Little
Tugela at Springfield.

So on we ride, 'trot and walk,' lightly and easily over the good turf,
and winding in scattered practical formations among the beautiful
verdant hills of Natal. Presently we topped a ridge and entered a very
extensive basin of country--a huge circular valley of green grass with
sloping hills apparently on all sides and towards the west, bluffs,
rising range above range, to the bright purple wall of the Drakensberg.
Other valleys opened out from this, some half veiled in thin mist,
others into which the sun was shining, filled with a curious blue light,
so that one seemed to be looking down into depths of clear water, and
everyone rejoiced in the splendours of the delightful landscape.

But now we approached Springfield, and perhaps at Springfield we should
find the enemy. Surely if they did not oppose the passage they would
blow up the bridge. Tiny patrols--beetles on a green baize
carpet--scoured the plain, and before we reached the crease--scarcely
perceptible at a mile's distance, in which the Little Tugela flows--word
was brought that no Dutchmen were anywhere to be seen. Captain Gough, it
appeared, with one man had ridden over the bridge in safety; more than
that, had actually explored three miles on the further side: did not
believe there was a Boer this side of the Tugela: would like to push on
to Potgieter's and make certain: 'Perhaps we can seize Potgieter's
to-night. They don't like having a flooded river behind them.' So we
come safely to Springfield--three houses, a long wooden bridge 'erected
by public subscription, at a cost of 4,300_l_.'--half a dozen farms with
their tin roofs and tree clumps seen in the neighbourhood--and no Boers.
Orders were to seize the bridge: seized accordingly; and after all had
crossed and watered in the Little Tugela--swollen by the rains to quite
a considerable Tugela, eighty yards wide--we looked about for something
else to do.

Meanwhile more patrols came in; all told the same tale: no Boers
anywhere. Well, then, let us push on. Why not seize the heights above
Potgieter's? If held, they would cost a thousand men to storm; now,
perhaps, they might be had for nothing. Again, why not? Orders said, 'Go
to Springfield;' nothing about Potgieter's at all. Never mind--if
cavalry had never done more than obey their orders how different
English history would have been! Captain Birdwood, 11th Bengal Lancers,
glorious regiment of the Indian frontier, now on Lord Dundonald's staff,
was for pushing on. All and sundry were eager to get on. 'Have a dash
for it.' It is very easy to see what to do in the field of war until you
put on the thick blue goggles of responsibility. Dundonald reflected,
reflected again, and finally resolved. _Vorwaerts!_ So on we went
accordingly. Three hundred men and two guns were left to hold the
Springfield bridge, seven hundred men and four guns hurried on through
the afternoon to Potgieter's Ferry, or, more properly speaking, the
heights commanding it, and reached them safely at six o'clock, finding a
strong position strengthened by loopholed stone walls, unguarded and
unoccupied. The whole force climbed to the top of the hills, and with
great labour succeeded in dragging the guns with them before night. Then
we sent back to announce what we had done and to ask for reinforcements.

The necessity for reinforcements seemed very real to me, for I have a
wholesome respect for Boer military enterprise; and after the security
of a great camp the dangers of our lonely unsupported perch on the hills
came home with extra force. 'No Boers this side of the Tugela.' How did
we know? We had not seen any, but the deep valleys along the river might
easily conceal two thousand horsemen. I said to myself, the Boer has
always a reason for everything he does. He left the Springfield bridge
standing. It would have cost him nothing to blow it up. Why, then, had
he neglected this obvious precaution? Again, the position we had seized
had actually been fortified by the enemy. Why, then, had they abandoned
it to a parcel of horsemen without a shot fired? I could quite
understand that the flooded Tugela was not a satisfactory feature to
fight in front of, but it seemed certain that they had some devilry
prepared for us somewhere. The uninjured bridge appeared to me a trap:
the unguarded position a bait. Suppose they were, we should be attacked
at daylight. Nothing more than a soldier should always expect; but what
of the position? The line we had to hold to cover the approaches to our
hill-top was far greater than seven hundred men could occupy. Had we
been only cavalry and mounted men we could have fallen back after the
position became untenable, but we were encumbered with four
field-guns--a source of anxiety, not of strength. So I began to long for
infantry. Two thousand good infantry would make everything absolutely
secure. And ten miles away were infantry by thousands, all delighted to
march every mile nearer the front.

We passed a wet and watchful night without food or sleep, and were glad
to find the break of day unbroken by the musketry of a heavy attack.
From our lofty position on the heights the whole country beyond the
Tugela was spread like a map. I sat on a great rock which overhung the
valley, and searched the landscape inch by inch with field glasses.
After an hour's study my feeling of insecurity departed. I learned the
answer to the questions which had perplexed the mind. Before us lay the
'devilry' the Boers had prepared, and it was no longer difficult to
understand why the Springfield bridge had been spared and the heights
abandoned.[2]


The ground fell almost sheer six hundred feet to the flat bottom of the
valley. Beneath, the Tugela curled along like a brown and very sinuous
serpent. Never have I seen such violent twists and bends in a river. At
times the waters seemed to loop back on themselves. One great loop bent
towards us, and at the arch of this the little ferry of Potgieter's
floated, moored to ropes which looked through the field glasses like a
spider's web. The ford, approached by roads cut down through the steep
bank, was beside it, but closed for the time being by the flood. The
loop of river enclosed a great tongue of land which jutted from the
hills on the enemy's side almost to our feet. A thousand yards from the
tip of this tongue rose a line of low kopjes crowned with reddish
stones. The whole tongue was virtually ours. Our guns on the heights or
on the bank could sweep it from flank to flank, enfilade and cross
fire. Therefore the passage of the river was assured. We had obtained
what amounted to a practical bridgehead, and could cross whenever we
thought fit. But the explanation of many things lay beyond. At the base
of the tongue, where it sprang from the Boer side of the valley, the
ground rose in a series of gentle grassy slopes to a long horseshoe of
hills, and along this, both flanks resting securely on unfordable
reaches of the river, out of range from our heights of any but the
heaviest guns, approachable by a smooth grass glacis, which was exposed
to two or three tiers of cross-fire and converging fire, ran the enemy's
position. Please look at the sketch on p. 261, which shows nothing but
what it is meant to.

[Illustration: Plan of Potgieter's Ferry.]

It will be seen that there is no difficulty in shelling the Boers out of
the little kopjes, of fortifying them, and of passing the army on to the
tip of the tongue; but to get off the tongue on to the smooth plateau
that runs to Ladysmith it was necessary to force the tremendous Boer
position enclosing the tongue. In technical language the possession of
the heights virtually gave us a bridgehead on the Tugela, but the
debouches from that bridgehead were barred by an exterior line of hills
fortified and occupied by the enemy.

What will Sir Redvers Buller do? In a few hours we shall know. To cross
and deliver a frontal attack will cost at least three thousand men. Is a
flank attack possible? Can the position be turned? Fords few and far
between, steep banks, mighty positions on the further banks: such are
some of the difficulties. But everyone has confidence in the general.
An officer who had been serving on the Kimberley side came here. 'I
don't understand,' he said, 'how it is you are all so cheerful here
after Colenso. You should hear the troops at Modeler River.' But it is a
poor army that cannot take a repulse and come up smiling, and when the
private soldiers put their faith in any man they are very constant.
Besides, Buller's personality impresses everyone with the idea of some
great reserve of force. Certainly he has something up his sleeve. The
move to Potgieter's has been talked of for a month and executed with the
greatest ostentation and deliberation. Surely something lies behind it
all. So at least we all believe, and in the meanwhile trust
wholeheartedly.

But some part of the army will certainly cross at Potgieter's; and as I
looked down on the smooth smiling landscape it seemed very strange to
think that in a few days it would blaze into a veritable hell. Yet the
dark lines of shelter trenches, the redoubts crowning the hills, the
bristle of tiny black figures busily entrenching against the sky line,
hundreds of horses grazing in the plain, all promised a fierce and
stubborn defence. I turned about. The country to the southward was also
visible. What looked to the naked eye like an endless thin rope lay
streaked across the spacious veldt, and when I looked through the glass
I saw that it was ten or twelve miles of marching men and baggage. The
armies were approaching. The collision impended.

Nothing happened during the day except the capture of the ferry, which
daring enterprise was carried out by volunteers from the South African
Light Horse. Six swimmers, protected by a covering party of twenty men,
swam the flooded Tugela and began to haul the punt back, whereat the
Boers concealed in the kopjes opened a brisk fire at long range on the
naked figures, but did not hit anyone nor prevent them all from bringing
the punt safely to our side: a dashing exploit, of which their
regiment--the 'Cockyolibirds,' as the army, with its customary
irreverence, calls us on account of the cock's feather cockades we wear
in our hats (miserable jealousy!)--are immensely proud.

The falling of the Tugela increased the danger of our position, and I
was delighted when I woke up the next morning, the second of our
adventurous occupation, to find Colonel Sandbach, to whom I had confided
my doubts, outside my tent, saying 'I suppose you'll be happy now. Two
battalions have arrived.' And, sure enough, when I looked southwards, I
saw a steady rivulet of infantry trickling through the gorge, and
forming a comfortable brown inundation in the hollow where our camp lay.
A few minutes later Sir Redvers Buller and his staff rode up to see
things for themselves, and then we knew that all was well.

The General made his way to the great stone we call the observatory, and
lying down on his back peered through a telescope in silence for the
best part of an hour. Then he went off to breakfast with the Cavalry
Brigade staff. A few officers remained behind to take a still more
exhaustive view. 'There'll be some wigs on that green before long.'
'What a wonderful sight it will be from here!' 'What a place to see a
battle from!' Two artillerymen were loitering near. Said one: 'We ought
to have the Queen up here, in her little donkey carriage.' 'Ah, we'd do
it all right then,' replied his comrade. But when I looked at the
peaceful plain and reflected on the storm and tumult presently to burst
upon it, I could not help being glad that no gentle eye would view that
bloody panorama.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] This complaint was not in one respect justified by what followed,
for after we left Spearman's we only saw our tents for a day or two, and
at rare intervals, until Ladysmith was relieved.

[2] _Vide_ map, opposite p. 366, which will be found to illustrate the
subsequent letters.




CHAPTER XVI

TRICHARDT'S DRIFT AND THE AFFAIR OF ACTON HOMES


Venter's Spruit: January 22, 1900.

On Thursday, January 11, Sir Redvers Buller began his operations for
forcing the Tugela and relieving Ladysmith. Barton's Brigade entrenched
itself at Chieveley, guarding the line of railway communication.
Hildyard's Brigade marched westward six miles to Pretorius's Farm, where
they were joined by the cavalry, the naval guns, three batteries Field
Artillery, and Hart's Brigade from Frere. The infantry and two batteries
remained and encamped, making Clery's division, while the mounted forces
under Dundonald moved forward to take the bridge across the Little
Tugela at Springfield, and, finding this unoccupied, pushed on and
seized the heights overlooking Potgieter's Drift on the Tugela, On the
12th Warren's division, comprising the brigades of Lyttelton and
Woodgate, with three batteries, marched to Springfield, where they
camped. On the 13th the mounted troops, holding the heights above
Potgieter's Drift, were strengthened by the arrival of two battalions of
Lyttelton's Brigade from Springfield. Sir Redvers Buller established his
headquarters in this camp. On the 14th the rest of the brigade followed,
and the same day the corps troops, consisting of Coke's Brigade, one
howitzer, and one field battery, reached Springfield. On the 15th Coke
moved to the position before Potgieter's, and the naval guns were
established on the heights commanding the ford. All this while the Boers
contented themselves with fortifying their horseshoe position which
enclosed the debouches from Potgieter's Drift, and only picket firing
disturbed the general peace.

Such was the situation when I wrote my last letter. It was soon to
develop, though in a most leisurely and deliberate manner. The mounted
forces, which had arrived at Spearman's Hill, as the position before
Potgieter's was called, on the 11th, passed nearly a week of
expectation. Daily we watched the enemy fortifying his position, and
observed the long lines of trenches which grew and spread along the face
of the opposite hills. Daily we made reconnoitring expeditions both east
and west along the Tugela, expeditions always attended with incident,
sometimes with adventure. One day Colonel Byng crawled with two
squadrons to the summit of a high hill which overlooked the road from
Colenso to Potgieter's, and a long and patient vigil was rewarded by the
arrival of five Boer ox waggons toiling sluggishly along with supplies,
on which we directed a rapid and effective fire till they found some
refuge in a cutting. Another day we strengthened ourselves with two
guns, and, marching nearly to the junction of the Tugelas, gave the
Boers camped there an honest hour's shelling, and extricated a patrol of
Bethune's Mounted Infantry from a rather disagreeable position, so that
they were able to bring off a wounded trooper. Nightly the cavalry camp
went to sleep in the belief that a general attack would open on the
enemy's position at dawn. Day after day the expected did not happen.
Buller had other resources than to butt his head against the tremendous
entrenchments which were springing up before him. Everyone discussed
every conceivable alternative, and in the meanwhile it was always
'battle to-morrow,' but never 'battle to-day.' And so it has continued
until this moment, and the great event--the main trial of
strength--still impends.

But though there has been but little powder burned the situation has
materially altered, and its alteration has been entirely to our
advantage. We have crossed the Tugela. The river which for two months
has barred the advance of the relieving army lies behind us now. The
enemy entrenched and entrenching in a strong position still confronts
us, but the British forces are across the Tugela, and have deployed on
the northern bank. With hardly any loss Sir Redvers Buller has gained a
splendid advantage. The old inequality of ground has been swept away,
and the strongest army yet moved under one hand in South Africa stands
face to face with the Boers on the ordinary terms of attack and defence.
Let me describe the steps by which this result has been obtained. On the
afternoon of the 16th, as we were sitting down to luncheon, we noticed a
change in the appearance of the infantry camps on the reverse slopes of
Spearman's Hill. There was a busy bustling of men; the tents began to
look baggy, then they all subsided together; the white disappeared, and
the camping grounds became simply brown patches of moving soldiery.
Lyttelton's Brigade had received orders to march at once. Whither? It
was another hour before this part of the secret transpired. They were to
cross the river and seize the near kopjes beyond Potgieter's Drift.
Orders for cavalry and guns to move arrived in quick succession; the
entire cavalry force, excepting only Bethune's Mounted Infantry, to
march at 5.30 P.M., with five days' rations, 150 rounds per man, and
what they stood up in--tents blankets, waterproof sheets, picketing
gear, all to be left behind. Our camp was to remain standing. The
infantry had struck theirs. I puzzled over this for some time, in fact
until an officer pointed out that our camp was in full view of the Boer
outposts on Spion Kop, while the infantry camps were hidden by a turn of
the hill. Evidently a complex and deeply laid scheme was in progress.

In the interval, while the South African Light Horse were preparing for
the march, I rode up to Gun Hill to watch the operation of seizing the
near kopjes, which stood on the tongue of land across the river, and as
nearly as possible in the centre of the horseshoe position of the enemy.
The sailors were hauling their two great guns to the crest of the hill
ready to come into action to support the infantry attack. Far below, the
four battalions crept through the scrub at the foot of the hills towards
the ferry. As they arrived at the edge of the open ground the long
winding columns dissolved into sprays of skirmishers, line behind line
of tiny dashes, visible only as shadows on the smooth face of the
veldt, strange formations, the result of bitter practical experience.
Presently the first line--a very thin line--men twenty paces
apart--reached the ferry punt and the approaches to the Waggon Drift,
and scrambled down to the brim of the river. A single man began to wade
and swim across, carrying a line. Two or three others followed.
Then a long chain of men, with arms locked--a sort of human
caterpillar--entered the water, struggled slowly across, and formed up
under the shelter of the further bank. All the time the Boers, manning
their trenches and guns, remained silent. The infantry of the two
leading battalions were thus filtering uneventfully across when the time
for the cavalry column to start arrived.

There was a subdued flutter of excitement as we paraded, for though both
our destination and object were unknown, it was clearly understood that
the hour of action had arrived. Everything was moving. A long cloud of
dust rose up in the direction of Springfield. A column of
infantry--Coke's Brigade--curled out of its camp near Spearman's Hill,
and wound down towards the ferry at Potgieter's. Eight curiously
proportioned guns (naval 12-pounders), with tiny wheels and thin
elongated barrels, were passed in a string, each tied to the tail of a
waggon drawn by twenty oxen. The howitzer battery hurried to follow; its
short and squat pieces, suggesting a row of venomous toads, made a
striking contrast. As the darkness fell the cavalry column started. On
all sides men were marching through the night: much important business
was toward, which the reader may easily understand by studying the map,
but cannot without such attention.

Having placed his army within striking distance of the various passages
across the Tugela, Sir Redvers Buller's next object was to cross and
debouch. To this end his plan appears to have been--for information is
scarcely yet properly codified--something as follows: Lyttelton's
Brigade, the corps troops forming Coke's Brigade, the ten naval guns,
the battery of howitzers, one field battery, and Bethune's Mounted
Infantry to demonstrate in front of the Potgieter position, keeping the
Boers holding the horseshoe in expectation of a frontal attack, and
masking their main position; Sir Charles Warren to march by night from
Springfield with the brigades of Hart, Woodgate, and Hildyard, the Royal
Dragoons, six batteries of artillery, and the pontoon train to a point
about five miles west of Spearman's Hill, and opposite Trichardt's Drift
on the Tugela. Here he was to meet the mounted forces from Spearman's
Hill, and with these troops he was next day, the 17th, to throw bridges,
force the passage of the river, and operate at leisure and discretion
against the right flank of the enemy's horseshoe before Potgieter's,
resting on Spion Kop, a commanding mountain, ultimately joining hands
with the frontal force from Spearman's Hill at a point on the Acton
Homes-Ladysmith road. To sum up briefly, seven battalions, twenty-two
guns, and three hundred horse under Lyttelton to mask the Potgieter
position; twelve battalions, thirty-six guns, and sixteen hundred horse
to cross five miles to the westward, and make a turning movement against
the enemy's right. The Boer covering army was to be swept back on
Ladysmith by a powerful left arm, the pivoting shoulder of which was at
Potgieter's, the elbow at Trichardt's Drift, and the enveloping
hand--the cavalry under Lord Dundonald--stretching out towards Acton
Homes.

So much for the plan; now for its execution or modifications. One main
feature has characterised the whole undertaking--its amazing
deliberation. There was to be absolutely no hurry of any kind whatever.
Let the enemy entrench and fortify. If necessary, we were prepared to
sap up to his positions. Let him discover where the attack impended.
Even then all his resistance should be overborne. And it seems now that
this same deliberation which was so punctiliously observed, when speed
appeared an essential to success, baffled the enemy almost as much as it
mystified the troops. However, the event is not yet decided.

After about two, hours' easy marching the cavalry reached the point of
rendezvous among the hills opposite Trichardt's Drift, and here we
halted and awaited developments in the blackness. An hour passed. Then
there arrived Sir Charles Warren and staff. 'Move the cavalry out of the
way--fifteen thousand men marching along this road to-night.' So we
moved accordingly and waited again. Presently the army began to come. I
remember that it poured with rain, and there was very little to look at
in the gloom, but, nevertheless, it was not possible to stand unmoved
and watch the ceaseless living stream--miles of stern-looking men
marching in fours so quickly that they often had to run to keep up, of
artillery, ammunition columns, supply columns, baggage, slaughter
cattle, thirty great pontoons, white-hooded, red-crossed ambulance
waggons, all the accessories of an army hurrying forward under the cover
of night--and before them a guiding star, the red gleam of war.

We all made quite sure that the bridges would be built during the
night, so that with the dawn the infantry could begin to cross and make
an immediate onfall. But when morning broke the whole force was revealed
spread about the hills overlooking the drift and no sound of artillery
proclaimed the beginning of an action. Of course, since a lightning blow
had been expected, we all wondered what was the cause of the delay. Some
said folly, others incapacity, others even actual laziness. But so far
as the operations have proceeded I am not inclined to think that we have
lost anything by not hurrying on this occasion. As I write all is going
well, and it would have been a terrible demand to make of infantry that
they should attack, after a long night march, such a position as lay and
still lies in part before us. In fact it was utterly impossible to do
anything worth doing that day beyond the transportation; so that, though
the Boers were preparing redoubts and entrenchments with frantic energy,
we might just as well take our time. At about eight o'clock a patrol of
the Imperial Light Horse, under Captain Bridges, having ascertained that
only a few Dutch scouts were moving within range on the further bank,
the passage of the river began. Two battalions of Hildyard's Brigade,
the West Yorkshires and the Devons, moved towards the drift in the usual
open formation, occupied the houses, and began to entrench themselves in
the fields. Six batteries came into action from the wooded heights
commanding the passage. The pontoons advanced. Two were launched, and in
them the West Yorkshire Regiment began to cross, accumulating gradually
in the shelter of the further bank. Then the sappers began to build the
bridges. Half a dozen Boers fired a few shots at long range, and one
unfortunate soldier in the Devons was killed. The batteries opened on
the farms, woods, and kopjes beyond the river, shelling them
assiduously, though there was not an enemy to be seen, and searching out
the ground with great thoroughness. I watched this proceeding of making
'sicker' from the heights. The drift was approached from the ground
where we had bivouacked by a long, steep, descending valley. At nine
o'clock the whole of Hart's Brigade poured down this great gutter and
extended near the water. The bridge was growing fast--span after span of
pontoons sprang out at the ends as it lay along the bank. Very soon it
would be long enough to tow into position across the flood. Moreover,
the infantry of the West Yorks and Devons had mostly been ferried
across, and were already occupying the lately well-shelled farms and
woods. At eleven o'clock the bridge was finished, the transported
infantry were spreading up the hills, and Woodgate's Brigade moved
forward down the valley.

It soon became time for the cavalry to cross, but they were not
accommodated, as were the infantry, with a convenient bridge, About a
quarter of a mile down stream from Trichardt's Drift there is a deep and
rather dangerous ford, called the Waggon Drift. Across this at noon the
mounted men began to make their way, and what with the uneven bottom and
the strong current there were a good many duckings. The Royal Dragoons
mounted on their great horses, indeed, passed without much difficulty,
but the ponies of the Light Horse and Mounted Infantry were often swept
off their feet, and the ridiculous spectacle of officers and men
floundering in the torrent or rising indignantly from the shallows
provided a large crowd of spectators--who had crossed by the
bridge--with a comedy. Tragedy was not, however, altogether excluded,
for a trooper of the 13th Hussars was drowned, and Captain Tremayne, of
the same regiment, who made a gallant attempt to rescue him, was taken
from the water insensible.

During the afternoon the busy Engineers built a second bridge across the
river, and by this and the first the artillery, the ammunition columns,
and the rest of the mass of wheeled transport defiled. All that day and
through the night this monotonous business of passing the waggons across
continued. The cavalry had bivouacked--all tents and even waterproofs
were now left behind--within the infantry picket lines, and we awoke at
the break of day expecting to hear the boom of the first gun. 'Quite
right to wait until there was a whole day to make the attack in. Suppose
that was the reason we did not hurry yesterday.' But no guns fired near
Trichardt's Drift, and only the frontal force at Potgieter's began its
usual bombardment. Sir Charles Warren, moreover, said that his artillery
had not finished crossing--one battery still to cross--and that there
was no hurry. Deliberation was the order of the day. So again everyone
was puzzled, and not a few were critical, for in modern times everyone
thinks, and even a native camp follower has his views on tactics and
strategy. A very complete consolation awaited the cavalry. All that
Warren did with his infantry on this day, the 18th, was to creep
cautiously forward about two miles towards the Boer position, which with
its left resting on Spion Kop stretched along the edge and crest of a
lofty plateau, from which long gently sloping spurs and _aretes_ ran
down to the river. For us, however, there was more diverting employment.
'The mounted brigade will guard the left flank of the infantry.' Such
was the order; and is not offence the surest defence? Accordingly all
the irregular cavalry moved in a considerable column westward across the
front of the Boer position, endeavouring to find where its flank rested,
and prying with inquisitive patrols at every object of interest. The
order of march was as follows: First, the composite regiment (one
squadron of Imperial Light Horse, the 60th Rifles, Mounted Infantry, and
one squadron of Natal Carabineers), 350 of the very best; next, four
squadrons of the South African Light Horse, good shooting high-class
colonial Volunteers with officers of experience; then Thorneycroft's
Mounted Infantry. 'Lived in Natal all our lives! Know every inch of it,
sir!' And behind these alert mounted riflemen moved the ponderous and
terrible regulars, 13th Hussars and Royals, with the dreaded _arme
blanche_, 'Wait till we get among them.' Altogether a formidable
brigade.

There were many halts, and no one hurried, so that at two o'clock the
whole cavalry formed a line of observation along the lower kopjes by
the river about five miles long. The composite regiment was not,
however, to be seen. Major Graham, who commanded it, had been observed
trotting swiftly off to the westward. Two hundred Boers had also been
reported moving in that direction. Presently came the sound of distant
musketry--not so very distant either. Everyone pricked up his ears. Two
miles away to the left was a green hill broken by rocky kopjes. Looking
through my glasses I could see ten or twelve riderless horses grazing. A
mile further on a group of Boers sheltering behind a kopje from the
continual fire was visible. Suddenly one galloped away madly, and even
at the distance it was possible to see the cloud of dust from pursuing
bullets. A straggling column of Boers was trekking away across the plain
back to their main position. Then came reports and rumours. 'Ambuscaded
the Dutchmen--shot 'em to bits--some of them cut off--come and bag the
lot.' Behind the rumours Barnes, adjutant of the Imperial Light Horse,
joyful, with a breathless horse; he explained how they had seen two
hundred Boers moving towards distant hills, to make sure of their line
of retreat by the Acton Homes road into the Free State; galloped to cut
them off; reached the hills first, with just five minutes to spare;
dismounted, commanding the road, and waited.

The Boers admitted afterwards that they thought that the squadrons
visible on the other hills two miles back were the head of our column,
and they also blamed their scouts, particularly one, an Austrian. 'It
all comes of trusting these cursed foreigners! If we had only had a
_veldt_ Boer out we should never have been caught.' Caught, however,
they undoubtedly were. The Carabineers and the Imperial Light Horse held
their fire until the scouts walked into their midst, and then let drive
at the main body, 300 yards range, mounted men, smooth open grass plain.
There was a sudden furious, snapping fusillade The Boer column stopped
paralysed; then they broke and rushed for cover. The greater number
galloped fast from the field; some remained on the ground dead or
wounded. Others took refuge among the rocks of the kopjes and apparently
proposed to hold out until dark, and hence the arrival of Lieutenant
Barnes demanding reinforcements, 60th Rifles, Mounted Infantry, and
anything else, so as to attack these fellows in flank and 'bag the lot.'
Meanwhile Lord Dundonald had arrived on our hill. 'Certainly, every man
we can spare.' Off gallops the Mounted Infantry and one squadron of the
South African Light Horse, and later on some of Thorneycroft's, and
later still the Brigadier himself. I arrived in time to see the end. The
Boers--how many we could not tell--were tenaciously holding the black
rocks of a kopje and were quite invisible. The British riflemen curved
round them in a half-moon, firing continually at the rocks. The squadron
of South African Light Horse had worked almost behind the enemy, and
every Dutchman who dared make a dash for liberty ran a terrible
gauntlet. Still the surrender did not come. The white flag flickered for
a moment above the rocks, but neither side stopped firing. Evidently a
difference of opinion among the enemy. What do we care for that? Night
is coming on. Let us rush them with the bayonet and settle the matter.
This from the Rifles--nobody else had bayonets. So a section pushes
forward against the rocks, crawling along the ground. Anxious to see the
surrender, I followed on my pony, but on the instant there broke out a
savage fire from the kopje, and with difficulty I found shelter in a
donga. Here were two of the Natal Carabineers--one a bearded man of the
well-to-do farmer class, the other a young fair-haired gentleman--both
privates, both as cool as ice. 'Vewy astonishing outburst of fire,' said
the younger man in a delicate voice. 'I would recommend your remaining
here with your horse for the present.' Accordingly we lay still on the
grass slope and awaited developments. The young gentleman put his helmet
over the crest on the end of his rifle, and was much diverted to hear
the bullets whistle round it. At intervals he substituted his head for
the helmet and reported the state of the game. 'Bai Jove, the Rifles
are in a hot place.' I peered cautiously. A hundred yards away the
Mounted Infantry section were extended. The dust spurts rose around the
men, who remained pinned to the earth, scarcely able to raise their
heads to fire. Whatever passed over them came whizzing in our direction.
The Natal Volunteer, however, was too much interested in the proceedings
to forego his view. 'Deah, deah, they've fixed bayonets! Why, they're
coming back. They've had someone hurt.' I looked again for a moment. The
line of riflemen was certainly retiring, wriggling backwards slowly on
their bellies. Two brown forms lay still and hunched in the abandoned
position. Then suddenly the retiring Riflemen sprang up and ran for
shelter in our donga. One lad jumped right in among us laughing and
panting, and the whole party turned at once and lined the bank.
First-class infantry can afford to retire at the double, sure that they
will stop at a word. 'We got to within fifty yards of the Dutchmen,'
they said; 'but it was too hot to go further. They've shot two fellows
through the head.' Eventually we all retired to the main position on the
ridge above us. Lord Dundonald and his staff had just arrived.

'There! there's the white flag again. Shoot the devils!' cried a
soldier, and the musketry crashed out fiercely. 'What's to be done,
sir?' said the Captain, turning to the Brigadier; 'the white flag has
been up off and on for the last half-hour, but they don't stop firing,
and they've just killed two of my men.'

'Give them one more chance.' 'Cease fire--cease fire there, will you?'
for the men were very angry, and so at last the musketry died away, and
there was silence. Then from among the rocks three dark figures stood up
holding up their hands, and at this tangible evidence of surrender we
got on our horses and galloped towards them waving pocket handkerchiefs
and signalling flags to show them that their surrender was accepted.
Altogether there were twenty-four prisoners--all Boers of the most
formidable type--a splendid haul, and I thought with delight of my poor
friends the prisoners at Pretoria. This might redeem a few. Then we
searched the ground, finding ten dead or dying and twenty loose horses,
ten dead and eight badly wounded men. The soldiers crowded round these
last, covering them up with blankets or mackintoshes, propping their
heads with saddles for pillows, and giving them water and biscuits from
their bottles and haversacks. Anger had turned to pity in an instant.
The desire to kill was gone. The desire to comfort replaced it. A little
alert officer--Hubert Gough, now a captain, soon to command a
regiment--came up to me. Two minutes before his eyes were bright and
joyous with the excitement of the man hunt. He had galloped a
mile--mostly under fire--to bring the reinforcements to surround the
Boers. 'Bag the lot, you know.' Now he was very sad. 'There's a poor boy
dying up there--only a boy, and so cold--who's got a blanket?'

So the soldiers succoured the Boer wounded, and we told the prisoners
that they would be shown courtesy and kindness worthy of brave men and
a famous quarrel. The Boer dead were collected and a flag of truce was
sent to the enemy's lines to invite a burying and identification party
at dawn. I have often seen dead men, killed in war--thousands at
Omdurman--scores elsewhere, black and white, but the Boer dead aroused
the most painful emotions. Here by the rock under which he had fought
lay the Field Cornet of Heilbronn, Mr. de Mentz--a grey-haired man of
over sixty years, with firm aquiline features and a short beard. The
stony face was grimly calm, but it bore the stamp of unalterable
resolve; the look of a man who had thought it all out, and was quite
certain that his cause was just, and such as a sober citizen might give
his life for. Nor was I surprised when the Boer prisoners told me that
Mentz had refused all suggestions of surrender, and that when his left
leg was smashed by a bullet he had continued to load and fire until he
bled to death; and they found him, pale and bloodless, holding his
wife's letter in his hand. Beside him was a boy of about seventeen shot
through the heart. Further on lay our own two poor riflemen with their
heads smashed like eggshells; and I suppose they had mothers or wives
far away at the end of the deep-sea cables. Ah, horrible war, amazing
medley of the glorious and the squalid, the pitiful and the sublime, if
modern men of light and leading saw your face closer, simple folk would
see it hardly ever.

It could not be denied that the cavalry had scored a brilliant success.
We had captured twenty-four, killed ten, and wounded eight--total,
forty-two. Moreover, we had seen the retreating Boers dragging and
supporting their injured friends from the field, and might fairly claim
fifteen knocked out of time, besides those in our hands, total
fifty-seven; a fine bag, for which we had had to pay scarcely anything.
Two soldiers of the Mounted Infantry killed; one trooper of the Imperial
Light Horse slightly, and one officer, Captain Shore--the twenty-third
officer of this regiment hit during the last three months--severely
wounded.




CHAPTER XVII

THE BATTLE OF SPION KOP


Venter's Spruit: January 25, 1900.

It is the remarkable characteristic of strong races, as of honourable
men, to keep their tempers in the face of disappointment, and never to
lose a just sense of proportion; and it is, moreover, the duty of every
citizen in times of trouble to do or say or even to think nothing that
can weaken or discourage the energies of the State. Sir Redvers Buller's
army has met with another serious check in the attempt to relieve
Ladysmith. We have approached, tested, and assailed the Boer positions
beyond the Tugela, fighting more or less continuously for five days, and
the result is that we find they cannot be pierced from the direction of
Trichardt's Drift any more than at Colenso. With the loss of more than
two thousand men out of a small army, we find it necessary to recross
the, river and seek for some other line of attack; and meanwhile the
long and brave resistance of Ladysmith must be drawing to a close.
Indeed, it is the opinion of many good judges that further efforts to
relieve the town will only be attended with further loss. As to this I
do not pronounce, but I am certain of one thing--that further efforts
must be made, without regard to the loss of life which will attend them.

I have seen and heard a good deal of what has passed here. I have often
been blamed for the freedom with which I have written of other
operations and criticised their commanders. I respectfully submit that I
am as venomous an amateur strategist as exists at this time. It is very
easy--and much more easy than profitable--when freed from all
responsibility to make daring suggestions and express decided opinions.
I assert that I would not hesitate to criticise mercilessly if I was not
myself sobered by the full appreciation of the extraordinary
difficulties which the relief of Ladysmith presents; and if there be
anyone who has any confidence in my desire to write the truth I appeal
to him to be patient and calm, to recognise that perhaps the task before
Sir Redvers Buller and his subordinates is an actual impossibility, that
if these generals are not capable men--among the best that our times
produce--it is difficult to know where and how others may be obtained,
and finally to brutally face the fact that Sir George White and his
heroic garrison may be forced to become the prisoners of the Boers,
remembering always that nothing that happens, either victory or defeat,
in northern Natal can affect the ultimate result of the war. In a word,
let no one despair of the Empire because a few thousand soldiers are
killed, wounded, or captured Now for the story as plainly and briefly as
possible.

When Buller had arrived at Potgieter's he found himself confronted by a
horseshoe position of great strength, enclosing and closing the
debouches from the ford where he had secured a practical bridgehead. He
therefore masked Potgieter's with seven battalions and twenty-four guns,
and sent Warren with twelve battalions and thirty-six guns to turn the
right, which rested on the lofty hill--almost mountain--of Spion Kop.
The Boers, to meet this turning movement, extended their line westwards
along the heights of the Tugela valley almost as far as Acton Homes.
Their whole position was, therefore, shaped like a note of interrogation
laid on its side, --/\, the curve in front of General Lyttelton, the
straight line before Sir Charles Warren. At the angle formed by the
junction of the curve and the line stands Spion Kop--'look-out hill.'
The curved position in front of General Lyttelton has been already
described in a previous letter. The straight position in front of Sir
Charles Warren ran in two lines along the edge and crest of a plateau
which rises steeply two miles from the river, but is approachable by
numerous long _aretes_ and dongas. These letters have completed the
chronicle down to the evening of the 18th, when the successful cavalry
action was fought on the extreme left.

I do not know why nothing was done on the 19th, but it does not appear
that anything was lost by the delay. The enemy's entrenchments were
already complete, and neither his numbers nor the strength of his
positions could increase.

On the 20th Warren, having crept up the _aretes_ and dongas, began his
attack. The brigades of Generals Woodgate and Hart pushed forward on the
right, and the Lancashire and Irish regiments, fighting with the usual
gallantry of her Majesty's troops, succeeded, in spite of a heavy fire
of rifles and artillery, in effecting lodgments at various points along
the edge of the plateau, capturing some portions of the enemy's first
line of entrenchments. On the extreme left the cavalry under Lord
Dundonald demonstrated effectively, and the South African Light Horse
under Colonel Byng actually took and held without artillery support of
any kind a high hill, called henceforward 'Bastion Hill,' between the
Dutch right and centre. Major Childe, the officer whose squadron
performed this daring exploit, was killed on the summit by the shell
fire to which the successful assailants were subjected by the Boers. In
the evening infantry reinforcements of Hildyard's Brigade arrived, and
at dawn the cavalry handed over the hill to their charge. The losses
during the day did not exceed three hundred and fifty officers and men
wounded--with fortunately, a small proportion of killed--and fell mainly
on the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Dublin Fusiliers (always in the front),
and the Royal Lancaster Regiment. They were not disproportioned to the
apparent advantage gained.

On the 21st the action was renewed. Hart's and Woodgate's brigades on
the right made good and extended their lodgments, capturing all the Boer
trenches of their first defensive line along the edge of the plateau. To
the east of 'Bastion Hill' there runs a deep _re-entrant_, which
appeared to open a cleft between the right and centre of the Boer
position. The tendency of General Hildyard's action, with five
battalions and two batteries, on the British left this day was to drive
a wedge of infantry into this cleft and so split the Boer position in
two. But as the action developed, the great strength of the second line
of defence gradually revealed itself. It ran along the crest of the
plateau, which rises about a thousand yards from the edge in a series of
beautiful smooth grassy slopes of concave surface, forming veritable
glacis for the musketry of the defence to sweep; and it consisted of a
line of low rock and earth redoubts and shelter trenches, apparently
provided with overhead cover, and cleverly arranged to command all
approaches with fire--often with cross-fire, sometimes with converging
fire. Throughout the 21st, as during the 20th, the British artillery,
consisting of six field batteries and four howitzers, the latter
apparently of tremendous power, bombarded the whole Boer position
ceaselessly, firing on each occasion nearly three thousand shells. They
claim to have inflicted considerable loss on the enemy, and must have
inflicted some, but failed utterly and painfully to silence the
musketry, to clear the trenches, or reach and overpower the Dutch
artillery, which did not number more than seven or eight guns and two
Maxim shell-guns, but which were better served and manoeuvred and of
superior quality. The losses in the action of the 20th were about one
hundred and thirty officers and men killed and wounded, but this must be
regarded as severe in the face of the fact that no serious collision or
even contact took place.

During the 22nd and 23rd the troops held the positions they had won, and
the infantry were subjected to a harassing shell fire from the Boer
guns, which, playing from either flank, searched the _re-entrants_ in
which the battalions sheltered, and which, though they did not cause a
greater loss than forty men on the 22nd and twenty-five on the 23rd,
nevertheless made their position extremely uncomfortable. It was quite
evident that the troops could not be fairly required to endure this
bombardment, against which there was no protection, indefinitely. Nor
was any good object, but rather the contrary, to be gained by waiting.

Three alternatives presented themselves to the council of war held on
the 22nd. First, to attack the second Boer position frontally along the
crest by moonlight. This would involve a great slaughter and a terrible
risk. Secondly, to withdraw again, beyond the Tugela, and look elsewhere
for a passage: a moral defeat and a further delay in the relief of
Ladysmith; and thirdly, to attack by night the mountain of Spion Kop,
and thence to enfilade and command the Boer entrenchments. Sir Redvers
Buller, who has always disdained effect, was for the second
course--unpalatable as it must have been to a fearless man; miserable as
it is to call off infantry after they have made sacrifices and won
positions, and to call them off a second time. The discussion was an
informal one, and no votes were taken, but the General yielded to the
advice of his subordinate, rightly, I hold, because now at least we know
the strength of the enemy's position, whereas before we only dreaded it;
and knowledge is a better reason for action than apprehension.

It was therefore decided to attack Spion Kop by night, rush the Boer
trenches with the bayonet, entrench as far as possible before dawn, hold
on during the day, drag guns up at night, and thus dominate the Boer
lines. There is, of course, no possible doubt that Spion Kop is the key
of the whole position, and the reader has only to think of the
horizontal note of interrogation, and remember that the mountain at the
angle divides, commands, and enfilades the enemy's lines, to appreciate
this fact. The questions to be proved were whether the troops could hold
out during the day, and whether the place could be converted into a fort
proof against shell fire and armed with guns during the following night.
Fate has now decided both.

General Woodgate was entrusted with the command, and Colonel
Thorneycroft with much of the arrangement and direction of the night
attack. It does not seem that anything but good resulted from this too
soon broken co-operation. Thorneycroft declined to attack on the night
of the 22nd because the ground had not been reconnoitered, and he
wanted to be sure of his way. The infantry therefore had another day's
shelling on the 23rd. Good reconnaissances were, however, made,
Lyttelton was strengthened by two Fusilier battalions from Chieveley,
Warren was reinforced by Talbot Coke's Brigade and the Imperial Light
Infantry, and at one o'clock on the morning of January 24 General
Woodgate started from his camp with the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Royal
Lancaster Regiment, two companies of the South Lancashires, and
Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry. Guided by Colonel Thorneycroft the
force made its way successfully up the southern spur of the mountain,
over most difficult and dangerous ground, and surprised the Boers
guarding the entrenchments on the summit. At three o'clock those
listening in the plain heard the sudden outburst of musketry, followed
by the loud cheers of the troops, and knew that the position had been
carried. Ten soldiers were killed and wounded in the firing. Six Boers
perished by the bayonet. The force then proceeded to fortify itself,
but the surface of the hill was extremely unsuited to defence. The rocks
which covered the summit made digging an impossibility, and were
themselves mostly too large to be built into sangars. Such cover,
however, as had been made by the Boers was utilised and improved.

Morning broke, and with it the attack. The enemy, realising the vital
importance of the position, concentrated every man and gun at his
disposal for its recapture. A fierce and furious shell fire was opened
forthwith on the summit, causing immediate and continual loss. General
Woodgate was wounded, and the command devolved on a regimental officer,
who, at half-past six, applied for reinforcements in a letter which
scarcely displayed that composure and determination necessary in such a
bloody debate.

Sir Redvers Buller then took the extreme step of appointing Major
Thorneycroft--already only a local lieutenant-colonel--local
Brigadier-General commanding on the summit of Spion Kop. The Imperial
Light Infantry, the Middlesex Regiment, and a little later the
Somersets, from General Talbot Coke's Brigade, were ordered to reinforce
the defence, but General Coke was directed to remain below the summit of
the hill, so that the fight might still be conducted by the best
fighting man.

The Boers followed, and accompanied their shells by a vigorous rifle
attack on the hill, and about half-past eight the position became most
critical. The troops were driven almost entirely off the main plateau
and the Boers succeeded in reoccupying some of their trenches. A
frightful disaster was narrowly averted. About twenty men in one of the
captured trenches abandoned their resistance, threw up their hands, and
called out that they would surrender. Colonel Thorneycroft, whose great
stature made him everywhere conspicuous, and who was from dawn till dusk
in the first firing line, rushed to the spot. The Boers advancing to
take the prisoners--as at Nicholson's Nek--were scarcely thirty yards
away. Thorneycroft shouted to the Boer leader: 'You may go to hell. I
command on this hill and allow no surrender. Go on with your firing.'
Which latter they did with terrible effect, killing many. The survivors,
with the rest of the firing line, fled two hundred yards, were rallied
by their indomitable commander, and, being reinforced by two brave
companies of the Middlesex Regiment, charged back, recovering all lost
ground, and the position was maintained until nightfall. No words in
these days of extravagant expression can do justice to the glorious
endurance which the English regiments--for they were all
English--displayed throughout the long dragging hours of hell fire.
Between three and four o'clock the shells were falling on the hill from
both sides, as I counted, at the rate of seven a minute, and the strange
discharges of the Maxim shell guns--the 'pom-poms' as these terrible
engines are called for want of a correct name--lacerated the hillsides
with dotted chains of smoke and dust. A thick and continual stream of
wounded flowed rearwards. A village of ambulance waggons grew up at the
foot of the mountain. The dead and injured, smashed and broken by the
shells, littered the summit till it was a bloody, reeking shambles.
Thirst tormented the soldiers, for though water was at hand the fight
was too close and furious to give even a moment's breathing space. But
nothing could weaken the stubborn vigour of the defence. The Dorset
Regiment--the last of Talbot Coke's Brigade--was ordered to support the
struggling troops. The gallant Lyttelton of his own accord sent the
Scottish Rifles and the 3rd King's Royal Rifles from Potgieter's to aid
them. But though their splendid attack did not help the main action;
though the British artillery, unable to find or reach the enemy's guns,
could only tear up the ground in impotent fury; though the shell fire
and rifle fire never ceased for an instant--the magnificent infantry
maintained the defence, and night closed in with the British still in
possession of the hill.

I find it convenient, and perhaps the reader will allow me, to break
into a more personal account of what followed. It drove us all mad to
watch idly in camp the horrible shelling that was directed on the
captured position, and at about four o'clock I rode with Captain R.
Brooke, 7th Hussars, to Spion Kop, to find out what the true situation
was. We passed through the ambulance village, and leaving our horses
climbed up the spur. Streams of wounded met us and obstructed the path.
Men were staggering along alone, or supported by comrades, or crawling
on hands and knees, or carried on stretchers. Corpses lay here and
there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and
fragments of the shell had torn and mutilated in the most ghastly
manner. I passed about two hundred while I was climbing up. There was,
moreover, a small but steady leakage of unwounded men of all corps. Some
of these cursed and swore. Others were utterly exhausted and fell on the
hillside in stupor. Others again seemed drunk, though they had had no
liquor. Scores were sleeping heavily. Fighting was still proceeding, and
stray bullets struck all over the ground, while the Maxim shell guns
scourged the flanks of the hill and the sheltering infantry at regular
intervals of a minute. The 3rd King's Royal Rifles were out of reach.
The Dorset Regiment was the only battalion not thrown into the fight,
and intact as an effective unit.

I had seen some service and Captain Brooke has been through more
fighting than any other officer of late years. We were so profoundly
impressed by the spectacle and situation that we resolved to go and tell
Sir Charles Warren what we had seen. The fight had been so close that no
proper reports had been sent to the General, so he listened with great
patience and attention. One thing was quite clear--unless good and
efficient cover could be made during the night, and unless guns could be
dragged to the summit of the hill to match the Boer artillery, the
infantry could not, perhaps would not, endure another day. The human
machine will not stand certain strains for long.

The questions were, could guns be brought up the hill; and, if so, could
the troops maintain themselves? The artillery officers had examined the
track. They said 'No,' and that even if they could reach the top of the
hill they would only be shot out of action. Two long-range naval
12-pounders, much heavier than the field-guns, had arrived. The naval
lieutenant in charge said he could go anywhere, or would have a try any
way. He was quite sure that if he could get on the top of the hill he
would knock out the Boer guns or be knocked out by them, and that was
what he wanted to find out. I do not believe that the attempt would have
succeeded, or that the guns could have been in position by daylight, but
the contrast in spirit was very refreshing.

Another informal council of war was called. Sir Charles Warren wanted to
know Colonel Thorneycroft's views. I was sent to obtain them. The
darkness was intense. The track stony and uneven. It was hopelessly
congested with ambulances, stragglers, and wounded men. I soon had to
leave my horse, and then toiled upwards, finding everywhere streams of
men winding about the almost precipitous sides of the mountain, and an
intermittent crackle of musketry at the top. Only one solid battalion
remained--the Dorsets. All the others were intermingled. Officers had
collected little parties, companies and half-companies; here and there
larger bodies had formed, but there was no possibility, in the darkness,
of gripping anybody or anything. Yet it must not be imagined that the
infantry were demoralised. Stragglers and weaklings there were in
plenty. But the mass of the soldiers were determined men. One man I
found dragging down a box of ammunition quite by himself. 'To do
something,' he said. A sergeant with twenty men formed up was inquiring
what troops were to hold the position. Regimental officers everywhere
cool and cheery, each with a little group of men around him, all full of
fight and energy. But the darkness and the broken ground paralysed
everyone.

I found Colonel Thorneycroft at the top of the mountain. Everyone seemed
to know, even in the confusion, where he was. He was sitting on the
ground surrounded by the remnants of the regiment he had raised, who
had fought for him like lions and followed him like dogs. I explained
the situation as I had been told and as I thought. Naval guns were
prepared to try, sappers and working parties were already on the road
with thousands of sandbags. What did he think? But the decision had
already been taken. He had never received any messages from the General,
had not had time to write any. Messages had been sent him, he had wanted
to send others himself. The fight had been too hot, too close, too
interlaced for him to attend to anything, but to support this company,
clear those rocks, or line that trench. So, having heard nothing and
expecting no guns, he had decided to retire. As he put it tersely:
'Better six good battalions safely down the hill than a mop up in the
morning.' Then we came home, drawing down our rearguard after us very
slowly and carefully, and as the ground grew more level the regiments
began to form again into their old solid blocks.

Such was the fifth of the series of actions called the Battle of Spion
Kop. It is an event which the British people may regard with feelings
of equal pride and sadness. It redounds to the honour of the soldiers,
though not greatly to that of the generals. But when all that will be
written about this has been written, and all the bitter words have been
said by the people who never do anything themselves, the wise and just
citizen will remember that these same generals are, after all, brave,
capable, noble English gentlemen, trying their best to carry through a
task which may prove to be impossible, and is certainly the hardest ever
set to men.

The Lancashire Fusiliers, the Imperial Light Infantry--whose baptism of
fire it was--Thorneycroft's, and the Middlesex Regiment sustained the
greater part of the losses.

We will have another try, and, if it pleases God, do better next time.




CHAPTER XVIII

THROUGH THE FIVE DAYS' ACTION


Venter's Spruit: January 25, 1900.

The importance of giving a general and comprehensive account of the late
actions around and on Spion Kop prevented me from describing its scenes
and incidents. Events, like gentlemen at a levee, in these exciting days
tread so closely on each other's heels that many pass unnoticed, and
most can only claim the scantiest attention. But I will pick from the
hurrying procession a few--distinguished for no other reason than that
they have caught my eye--and from their quality the reader may judge of
the rest.

The morning of the 20th discovered the cavalry still encamped behind the
hills near the Acton Homes road, on which they had surprised the Boers
two days before. The loud and repeated discharge of the artillery
advised us that the long-expected general action had begun. What part
were the cavalry to play? No orders had been sent to Lord Dundonald
except that he was to cover the left flank of the infantry. But the
cavalry commander, no less than his brigade, proposed to interpret these
instructions freely. Accordingly, at about half-past nine, the South
African Light Horse, two squadrons of the 13th Hussars, and a battery of
four machine guns moved forward towards the line of heights along the
edge and crest of which ran the Boer position with the intention of
demonstrating against them, and the daring idea--somewhere in the
background--of attacking and seizing one prominent feature which jutted
out into the plain, and which, from its boldness and shape, we had
christened 'Bastion Hill.' The composite regiment, who watched the
extreme left, were directed to support us if all was clear in their
front at one o'clock, and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, who kept
touch between the main cavalry force and the infantry left flank, had
similar orders to co-operate.

At ten o'clock Lord Dundonald ordered the South African Light Horse to
advance against Bastion Hill. If the resistance was severe they were not
to press the attack, but to content themselves with a musketry
demonstration. If, however, they found it convenient to get on they were
to do so as far as they liked. Colonel Byng thereon sent two squadrons
under Major Childe to advance, dismounted frontally on the hill, and
proposed to cover their movements by the fire of the other two
squadrons, who were to gallop to the shelter of a wood and creep thence
up the various dongas to within effective range.

Major Childe accepted his orders with alacrity, and started forth on
what seemed, as I watched from a grassy ridge, a most desperate
enterprise. The dark brown mass of Bastion Hill appeared to dominate the
plain. On its crest the figures of the Boers could be seen frequently
moving about. Other spurs to either flanks looked as if they afforded
facilities for cross fire. And to capture this formidable position we
could dismount only about a hundred and fifty men; and had, moreover, no
artillery support of any kind. Yet as one examined the hill it became
evident that its strength was apparent rather than real. Its slopes were
so steep that they presented no good field of fire. Its crest was a
convex curve, over and down which the defenders must advance before they
could command the approaches, and when so advanced they would be exposed
without shelter of any kind to the fire of the covering troops. The
salient was so prominent and jutted out so far from the general line of
hills, and was besides shaped so like a blunted redan, that its front
face was secure from flanking fire. In fact there was plenty of dead
ground in its approaches, and, moreover, dongas--which are the same as
nullahs in India or gullies in Australia--ran agreeably to our wishes
towards the hill in all directions. When first we had seen the hill
three days before we had selected it as a weak point in the Dutch line.
It afterwards proved that the Boers had no illusions as to its strength
and had made their arrangements accordingly.

So soon as the dismounted squadrons had begun their advance, Colonel
Byng led the two who were to cover it forward. The wood we were to reach
and find shelter in was about a thousand yards distant, and had been
reported unoccupied by the Boers, who indeed confined themselves
strictly to the hills after their rough handling on the 18th by the
cavalry. We moved off at a walk, spreading into a wide open order, as
wise colonial cavalry always do. And it was fortunate that our formation
was a dispersed one, for no sooner had we moved into the open ground
than there was the flash of a gun faraway among the hills to the
westward. I had had some experience of artillery fire in the armoured
train episode, but there the guns were firing at such close quarters
that the report of the discharge and the explosion of the shell were
almost simultaneous. Nor had I ever heard the menacing hissing roar
which heralds the approach of a long-range projectile. It came swiftly,
passed overhead with a sound like the rending of thin sheets of iron,
and burst with a rather dull explosion in the ground a hundred yards
behind the squadrons, throwing up smoke and clods of earth. We broke
into a gallop, and moved in curving course towards the wood. I suppose
we were a target a hundred yards broad by a hundred and fifty deep. The
range was not less than seven thousand yards, and we were at the gallop.
Think of this, Inspector-General of Artillery: the Boer gunners fired
ten or eleven shells, every one of which fell among or within a hundred
yards of our ranks. Between us and the wood ran a deep donga with a
river only fordable in places flowing through it. Some confusion
occurred in crossing this, but at last the whole regiment was across,
and found shelter from the terrible gun--perhaps there were two--on the
further bank. Thanks to our dispersed formation only two horses had been
killed, and it was possible to admire without having to deplore the
skill of the artillerists who could make such beautiful practice at
such a range.

Colonel Byng thought it advisable to leave the horses in the cover of
the protecting river bank, and we therefore pushed on, dismounted, and,
straggling through the high maize crop without presenting any target to
the guns, reached the wood safely. Through this we hurried as far as its
further edge. Here the riflemen on the hill opened with long-range fire.
It was only a hundred yards into the donga, and the troopers immediately
began running across in twos and threes. In the irregular corps all
appearances are sacrificed to the main object of getting where you want
to without being hurt. No one was hurt.

Colonel Byng made his way along the donga to within about twelve or
fourteen hundred yards, and from excellent cover opened fire on the
Boers holding the summit of the hill. A long musketry duel ensued
without any loss to our side, and with probably no more to the enemy.
The colonial troopers, as wary as the Dutch, showed very little to
shoot at, so that, though there were plenty of bullets, there was no
bloodshed. Regular infantry would probably have lost thirty or forty
men.

I went back for machine guns, and about half an hour later they were
brought into action at the edge of the wood. Boers on the sky-line at
two thousand yards--tat-tat-tat-tat-tat half a dozen times repeated;
Boers galloping to cover; one--yes, by Jupiter!--one on his back on the
grass; after that no more targets to shoot at; continuous searching of
the sky-line, however, on the chance of killing someone, and, in any
case, to support the frontal attack. We had altogether three guns--the
13th Hussars' Maxim under Lieutenant Clutterbuck, detached from the 4th
Hussars; one of Lord Dundonald's battery of Colts under Mr. Hill, who is
a member of Parliament, and guides the majestic course of Empire besides
managing machine guns; and our own Maxim, all under Major Villiers.

These three machines set up a most exhilarating splutter, flaring and
crackling all along the edge of the wood, and even attracted the
attention of the Boers. All of a sudden there was a furious rush and
roar overhead; two or three little cassarina trees and a shower of
branches fell to the ground. What on earth could this be? The main
action was crashing away on the right. Evidently a shell had passed a
few feet over our heads, but was it from our guns shelling the hills in
front, or from the enemy? In another minute the question was answered by
another shell. It was our old friend the gun to the westward, who,
irritated by the noisy Maxims, had resolved to put his foot down. Whizz!
Bang! came a third shot, exploding among the branches just behind the
Colt gun, to the great delight of Mr. Hill, who secured a large fragment
which I have advised him to lay on the table in the smoking-room of the
House for the gratification, instruction, and diversion of other
honourable members. The next shell smashed through the roof of a
farmhouse which stood at the corner of the wood, and near which two
troops of the 13th Hussars, who were escorting the Maxims and watching
the flanks, had left their led horses. The next, in quick succession,
fell right among them, killing one, but luckily, very luckily, failed to
burst. The officer then decided to move the horses to a safer place. The
two troops mounted and galloped off. They were a tiny target, only a
moving speck across the plain. But the Boer gunners threw a shell within
a yard of the first troop leader. All this at seven thousand yards!
English artillery experts, please note and if possible copy.

While these things were passing the advancing squadrons had begun to
climb the hill, and found to their astonishment that they were scarcely
fired at. It was of great importance, however, that the Boers should be
cleared from the summit by the Maxim fire, and lest this should be
diverted on our own men by mistake I left the wood for the purpose of
signalling back how far the advance had proceeded and up to what point
the guns could safely fire. The ground was broken; the distance
considerable. Before I reached the hill the situation had changed. The
enemy's artillery had persuaded the Maxims that they would do better to
be quiet--at any rate until they could see something to shoot at. Major
Childe had reached the top of the hill, one man of his squadron, ten
minutes in front of anyone else, waving his hat on his rifle at the
summit to the admiration of thousands of the infantry, all of whom saw
this act of conspicuous recklessness and rejoiced. Lord Dundonald had
galloped up to support the attack with Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry
and the rest of the 13th Hussars. We, the South African Light Horse, had
taken Bastion Hill.

To advance further forward, however, proved quite impossible. The Boers
had withdrawn to a second position a thousand yards in rear of the top
of the hill. From this they directed a most accurate and damnable fire
on all who showed themselves on the plateau. Beneath the crest one sat
in safety and listened to the swish of bullets passing overhead. Above,
the men were content to lie quite still underneath the rocks and wait
for darkness. I had a message for Major Childe and found him sitting on
this dangerous ground, partly sheltered by a large rock--a serene old
gentleman, exhausted with his climb, justly proud of its brilliant
success.

I found no reason to remain very long on the plateau, and had just
returned to the Brigadier when the Boer guns began to shell the tip of
the hill. The first two or three projectiles skimmed over the surface,
and roared harmlessly away. But the Boers were not long in striking
their mark. Two percussion shells burst on the exposed side of the hill,
and then a well-exploded shrapnel searched its summit, searched and
found what it sought. Major Childe was instantly killed by a fragment
that entered his brain, and half a dozen troopers were more or less
seriously wounded. After that, as if satisfied, the enemy's gun turned
its attention elsewhere.

I think this death of Major Childe was a very sad event even among the
inevitable incidents of war. He had served many-years ago in the Blues,
and since then a connection with the Turf had made him not unknown and
well liked in sporting circles. Old and grey as he was, the call to arms
had drawn him from home, and wife, and comfort, as it is drawing many of
all ages and fortunes now. And so he was killed in his first fight
against the Boers after he had performed an exploit--his first and last
in war--which would most certainly have brought him honourable
distinction. He had a queer presentiment of impending fate, for he had
spoken a good deal to us of the chances of death, and had even selected
his own epitaph, so that on the little wooden cross which stands at the
foot of Bastion Hill--the hill he himself took and held--there is
written: 'Is it well with the child? It is well!'

The coign of vantage which I found on the side of the hill was not only
to a great extent sheltered from the bullets, but afforded an extensive
view of the general action, and for the rest of the day I remained with
Lord Dundonald watching its development. But a modern action is very
disappointing as a spectacle. There is no smoke except that of the
bursting shells. The combatants are scattered, spread over a great
expanse of ground, concealed wherever possible, clad in neutral tint.

All the pomp and magnificence of Omdurman, the solid lines of infantry,
the mighty Dervish array, bright with flashing spears and waving flags,
were excluded. Rows of tiny dots hurried forward a few yards and
vanished into the brown of the earth. Bunches and clusters of brown
things huddled among the rocks or in sheltered spots. The six batteries
of artillery unlimbered, and the horses, hidden in some safe place, were
scarcely visible.

Once I saw in miniature through glasses a great wave of infantry surge
forward along a spur and disappear beyond a crest line. The patter of
the Mauser rifles swelled into a continuous rumbling like a train of
waggons passing over a pontoon bridge, and presently the wave recoiled;
the minute figures that composed it squeezed themselves into cover
among some rocks, a great many groups of men began carrying away black
objects. A trickle of independent dots dispersed itself. Then we
groaned. There had been a check. The distant drama continued. The
huddling figures began to move again--lithe, active forms moved about
rearranging things--officers, we knew, even at the distance. Then the
whole wave started again full of impetus--started--went forward, and
never came back. And at this we were all delighted, and praised the
valour of our unequalled infantry, and wished we were near enough to
give them a cheer.

So we watched until nightfall, when some companies of the Queen's, from
General Hildyard's Brigade, arrived, and took over the charge of our
hill from us, and we descended to get our horses, and perhaps some food,
finding, by good luck, all we wanted, and lay down on the ground to
sleep, quite contented with ourselves and the general progress of the
army.

The action of the 21st had begun before I awoke, and a brisk fusillade
was going on all along the line. This day the right attack stood still,
or nearly so, and the activity was confined to the left, where General
Hildyard, with five battalions and two batteries, skilfully felt and
tested the enemy's positions and found them most unpleasantly strong.
The main difficulty was that our guns could not come into action to
smash the enemy in his trenches without coming under his rifle fire,
because the edge of the plateau was only a thousand yards from the
second and main Boer position, and unless the guns were on the edge of
the plateau they could see very little and do less. The cavalry guarded
the left flank passively, and I remember no particular incident except
that our own artillery flung the fragments of two premature shells among
us and wounded a soldier in the Devonshire Regiment. The following fact,
however, is instructive. Captain Stewart's squadron of the South African
Light Horse dismounted, held an advanced kopje all day long under a
heavy fire, and never lost a man. Two hundred yards further back was
another kopje held by two companies of regular infantry under equal
fire. The infantry had more than twenty men hit.

On the 22nd the action languished and the generals consulted. The
infantry had made themselves masters of all the edge of the plateau, and
the regiments clustered in the steep re-entrants like flies on the side
of a wall. The Boers endeavoured to reach them with shells, and a
desultory musketry duel also proceeded.

During the afternoon I went with Captain Brooke to visit some of the
battalions of General Hart's Brigade and see what sort of punishment
they were receiving. As we rode up the watercourse which marks the
bottom of the valley a shrapnel shell cleared the western crest line and
exploded among one of the battalions. At first it seemed to have done no
harm, but as we climbed higher and nearer we met a stretcher carried by
six soldiers. On it lay a body with a handkerchief thrown across the
face. The soldiers bearing the stretcher were all covered with blood.

We proceeded and soon reached the battalions. A company of the Dublin
Fusiliers were among those captured in the armoured train, and I have
the pleasure of knowing most of the officers of this regiment. So we
visited them first--a dozen gentlemen--begrimed, unwashed, unshaven,
sitting on the hillside behind a two-foot wall of rough stones and near
a wooden box, which they called the 'Officers' Mess.' They were in
capital spirits in spite of every abominable circumstance.

'What did you lose in the action?'

'Oh, about fifty. Poor Hensley was killed, you know; that was the worst
of it.'

Captain Hensley was one of the smallest and bravest men in the Army, and
the Dublin Fusiliers, who should be good judges, regarded him as their
very best officer for all military affairs, whether attack, retreat, or
reconnaissance. Each had lost a friend, but collectively as a regiment
they had lost a powerful weapon.

'Very few of us left now,' said the colonel, surveying his regiment with
pride.

'How many?'

'About four hundred and fifty.'

'Out of a thousand?'

'Well, out of about nine hundred.'

This war has fallen heavily on some regiments. Scarcely any has suffered
more severely, none has won greater distinction, than the Dublin
Fusiliers--everywhere at the front--Dundee, Lombard's Kop, Colenso,
Chieveley, Colenso again, and even here at Spion Kop. Half the regiment,
more than half the officers killed or wounded or prisoners.

But the survivors were as cheery as ever.

'Do these shells catch anyone?'

'Only two or three an hour. They don't come always: every half-hour we
get half a dozen. That last one killed an officer in the next regiment.
Rather bad luck, picking an officer out of all these men--only one
killed to-day so far, a dozen wounded.'

I inquired how much more time remained before the next consignment of
shells was due. They said about ten minutes. I thought that would just
suit me, and bade them good morning, for I have a horror of being killed
when not on duty; but Captain Brooke was anxious to climb to the top and
examine the Boer position, and since we had come so far it was perhaps
worth while going on. So we did, and with great punctuality the shells
arrived.

We were talking to the officers of another regiment when they began. Two
came in quick succession over the eastern wall of the valley and then
one over the western. All three burst--two on impact, one in the air. A
fourth ripped along a stone shelter behind which skirmishers were
firing. A fifth missed the valley altogether and screeched away into the
plain clear of the hills. The officers and men were quite callous. They
scarcely troubled to look up. The soldiers went on smoking or playing
cards or sleeping as if nothing had happened. Personally I felt no
inclination to any of these pursuits, and I thought to sit and wait
indefinitely, for the caprice of one of these shrieking iron devils
would be most trying to anyone. But apparently you can get accustomed
to anything. The regiment where the officer had been killed a few
minutes before was less cheerful and callous. The little group of
officers crouching in the scanty shelter had seen one of their number
plucked out of their midst and slain--uselessly as it seemed. They
advised us to take cover, which we would gladly have done had there been
any worth speaking of; for at this moment the Boers discharged their
Vickers-Maxim gun--the 'pom-pom'--and I have never heard such an
extraordinary noise. Seven or eight bangs, a rattle, an amazing
cluttering and whistling overhead, then the explosions of the little
shells, which scarred the opposite hillside in a long row of puffs of
brown dust and blue-white smoke, suggesting a lash from a knotted
scourge.

'Look out!' we were told, 'they always follow that with a shell.' And so
they did, but it passed overhead without harming anyone. Again the
Vickers-Maxim flung its covey of projectiles. Again we crouched for the
following shell; but this time it did not come--immediately. I had seen
quite enough, however, so we bade our friends good luck--never good-bye
on active service--and hurried, slowly, on account of appearances, from
this unhealthy valley. As we reached our horses I saw another shell
burst among the infantry. After that there was another interval. Further
on we met a group of soldiers returning to their regiment One lad of
about nineteen was munching a biscuit. His right trouser leg was soaked
with blood, I asked whether he was wounded. 'No, sir; it's only blood
from an officer's head,' he answered, and went on--eating his biscuit.
Such were the fortunes for four days of the two brigades forming
Warren's left attack.

I have already written a general account of the final action of Spion
Kop on January 24, and have little to add. As soon as the news spread
through the camps that the British troops were occupying the top of the
mountain I hurried to Gun Hill, where the batteries were arrayed, and
watched the fight from a flank. The spectacle was inconsiderable but
significant. It was like a shadow peep-show. Along the mighty profile of
the hill a fringe of little black crotchets advanced. Then there were
brown and red smudges of dust from shells striking the ground and white
puffs from shrapnel bursting in the air--variations from the black and
white. Presently a stretcher borne by five tiny figures jerks slowly
forward, silhouetted on the sky-line; more shells; back goes the
stretcher laden, a thicker horizontal line than before. Then--a rush of
crotchets rearwards--one leading two mules, mules terrified, jibbing,
hanging back--all in silhouette one moment, the next all smudged with
dust cloud; God help the driver; shadows clear again; driver still
dragging mules--no, only one mule now; other figures still running
rearwards. Suddenly reinforcements arrive, hundreds of them; the whole
sky-line bristles with crotchets moving swiftly along it, bending
forward almost double, as if driving through a hailstorm. Thank heaven
for that--only just in time too--and then more smudges on the shadow
screen.

Sir Charles Warren was standing near me with his staff. One of his
officers came up and told me that they had been disturbed at breakfast
by a Boer shell, which had crashed through their waggon, killing a
servant and a horse. Presently the General himself saw me. I inquired
about the situation, and learned for the first time of General
Woodgate's wound--death it was then reported--and that Thorneycroft had
been appointed brigadier-general. 'We have put what we think is the best
fighting man in command regardless of seniority. We shall support him as
he may request. We can do no more.'

I will only relate one other incident--a miserable one. The day before
the attack on Spion Kop I had chanced to ride across the pontoon bridge.
I heard my name called, and saw the cheery face of a boy I had known at
Harrow--a smart, clean-looking young gentleman--quite the rough material
for Irregular Horse. He had just arrived and pushed his way to the
front; hoped, so he said, 'to get a job.' This morning they told me
that an unauthorised Press correspondent had been found among the killed
on the summit. At least they thought at first it was a Press
correspondent, for no one seemed to know him. A man had been found
leaning forward on his rifle, dead. A broken pair of field glasses,
shattered by the same shell that had killed their owner, bore the name
'M'Corquodale.' The name and the face flew together in my mind. It was
the last joined subaltern of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry--joined in
the evening shot at dawn.

Poor gallant young Englishman! he had soon 'got his job.' The great
sacrifice had been required of the Queen's latest recruit.




CHAPTER XIX

A FRESH EFFORT AND AN ARMY CHAPLAIN


Spearman's Hill: February 4, 1900

The first gleams of daylight crept underneath the waggon, and the
sleepers, closely packed for shelter from the rain showers, awoke. Those
who live under the conditions of a civilised city, who lie abed till
nine and ten of the clock in artificially darkened rooms, gain luxury at
the expense of joy. But the soldier, who fares simply, sleeps soundly,
and rises with the morning star, wakes in an elation of body and spirit
without an effort and with scarcely a yawn. There is no more delicious
moment in the day than this, when we light the fire and, while the
kettle boils, watch the dark shadows of the hills take form,
perspective, and finally colour, knowing that there is another whole day
begun, bright with chance and interest, and free from all cares. All
cares--for who can be worried about the little matters of humdrum life
when he may be dead before the night? Such a one was with us
yesterday--see, there is a spare mug for coffee in the mess--but now
gone for ever. And so it may be with us to-morrow. What does it matter
that this or that is misunderstood or perverted; that So-and-so is
envious and spiteful; that heavy difficulties obstruct the larger
schemes of life, clogging nimble aspiration with the mud of matters of
fact? Here life itself, life at its best and healthiest, awaits the
caprice of the bullet. Let us see the development of the day. All else
may stand over, perhaps for ever. Existence is never so sweet as when it
is at hazard. The bright butterfly flutters in the sunshine, the
expression of the philosophy of Omar Khayyam, without the potations.

But we awoke on the morning of the 25th in most gloomy spirits. I had
seen the evacuation of Spion Kop during the night, and I did not doubt
that it would be followed by the abandonment of all efforts to turn the
Boer left from the passages of the Tugela at and near Trichardt's
Drift. Nor were these forebodings wrong. Before the sun was fairly risen
orders arrived, 'All baggage to move east of Venter's Spruit
immediately. Troops to be ready to turn out at thirty minutes' notice.'
General retreat, that was their meaning. Buller was withdrawing his
train as a preliminary to disengaging, if he could, the fighting
brigades, and retiring across the river. Buller! So it was no longer
Warren! The Commander-in-Chief had arrived, in the hour of misfortune,
to take all responsibility for what had befallen the army, to extricate
it, if possible, from its position of peril, to encourage the soldiers,
now a second time defeated without being beaten, to bear the
disappointment. Everyone knows how all this, that looked so difficult,
was successfully accomplished.

The army was irritated by the feeling that it had made sacrifices for
nothing. It was puzzled and disappointed by failure which it did not
admit nor understand. The enemy were flushed with success. The opposing
lines in many places were scarcely a thousand yards apart. As the
infantry retired the enemy would have commanding ground from which to
assail them at every point. Behind flowed the Tugela, a deep, rapid,
only occasionally fordable river, eighty-five yards broad, with
precipitous banks. We all prepared ourselves for a bloody and even
disastrous rearguard action. But now, I repeat, when things had come to
this pass, Buller took personal command. He arrived on the field calm,
cheerful, inscrutable as ever, rode hither and thither with a weary
staff and a huge notebook, gripped the whole business in his strong
hands, and so shook it into shape that we crossed the river in safety,
comfort, and good order, with most remarkable mechanical precision, and
without the loss of a single man or a pound of stores.

The fighting troops stood fast for two days, while the train of waggons
streamed back over the bridges and parked in huge black squares on the
southern bank. Then, on the night of the 26th, the retreat began. It was
pitch dark, and a driving rain veiled all lights. The ground was
broken. The enemy near. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more
difficult operation. But it was performed with amazing ease.
Buller himself--not Buller by proxy or Buller at the end of a
heliograph--Buller himself managed it. He was the man who gave orders,
the man whom the soldiers looked to. He had already transported his
train. At dusk he passed the Royals over the ford. By ten o'clock all
his cavalry and guns were across the pontoon bridges. At ten he began
disengaging his infantry, and by daylight the army stood in order on the
southern bank. While the sappers began to take the pontoon bridges to
pieces the Boers, who must have been astonished by the unusual rapidity
of the movement, fired their first shell at the crossing. We were over
the river none too soon.

A successful retreat is a poor thing for a relieving army to boast of
when their gallant friends are hard pressed and worn out. But this
withdrawal showed that this force possesses both a leader and machinery
of organisation, and it is this, and this alone, that has preserved our
confidence. We believe that Buller gauged the capacity of one
subordinate at Colenso, of another at Spion Kop, and that now he will do
things himself, as he was meant to do. I know not why he has waited so
long. Probably some pedantic principle of military etiquette:
'Commander-in-Chief should occupy a central position; turning movements
should be directed by subordinates.' But the army believes that this is
all over now, and that for the future Buller will trust no one but
himself in great matters; and it is because they believe this that the
soldiers are looking forward with confidence and eagerness to the third
and last attempt--for the sands at Ladysmith have run down very low--to
shatter the Boer lines.

We have waited a week in the camp behind Spearman's Hill. The General
has addressed the troops himself. He has promised that we shall be in
Ladysmith soon. To replace the sixteen hundred killed and wounded in the
late actions, drafts of twenty-four hundred men have arrived. A
mountain battery, A Battery R.H.A., and two great fortress guns have
strengthened the artillery. Two squadrons of the 14th Hussars have been
added to the cavalry, so that we are actually to-day numerically
stronger by more than a thousand men than when we fought at Spion Kop,
while the Boers are at least five hundred weaker--attrition _versus_
recuperation. Everyone has been well fed, reinforced and inspirited, and
all are prepared for a supreme effort, in which we shall either reach
Ladysmith or be flung back truly beaten with a loss of six or seven
thousand men.

I will not try to foreshadow the line of attack, though certain
movements appear to indicate where it will be directed. But it is
generally believed that we fight to-morrow at dawn, and as I write this
letter seventy guns are drawing up in line on the hills to open the
preparatory bombardment.

It is a solemn Sunday, and the camp, with its white tents looking snug
and peaceful in the sunlight, holds its breath that the beating of its
heart may not be heard. On such a day as this the services of religion
would appeal with passionate force to thousands. I attended a church
parade this morning. What a chance this was for a man of great soul who
feared God! On every side were drawn up deep masses of soldiery, rank
behind rank--perhaps, in all, five thousand. In the hollow square stood
the General, the man on whom everything depended. All around were men
who within the week had been face to face with Death, and were going to
face him again in a few hours. Life seemed very precarious, in spite of
the sunlit landscape. What was it all for? What was the good of human
effort? How should it befall a man who died in a quarrel he did not
understand? All the anxious questionings of weak spirits. It was one of
those occasions when a fine preacher might have given comfort and
strength where both were sorely needed, and have printed on many minds a
permanent impression. The bridegroom Opportunity had come. But the
Church had her lamp untrimmed. A chaplain with a raucous voice
discoursed on the details of 'The siege and surrender of Jericho.' The
soldiers froze into apathy, and after a while the formal perfunctory
service reached its welcome conclusion.

As I marched home an officer said to me: 'Why is it, when the Church
spends so much on missionary work among heathens, she does not take the
trouble to send good men to preach in time of war? The medical
profession is represented by some of its greatest exponents. Why are
men's wounded souls left to the care of a village practitioner?' Nor
could I answer; but I remembered the venerable figure and noble
character of Father Brindle in the River War, and wondered whether Rome
was again seizing the opportunity which Canterbury disdained--the
opportunity of telling the glad tidings to soldiers about to die.




CHAPTER XX

THE COMBAT OF VAAL KRANTZ


General Buller's Headquarters: February 9, 1900.

During the ten days that passed peacefully after the British retreat
from the positions beyond Trichardt's Drift, Sir Redvers Buller's force
was strengthened by the arrival of a battery of Horse Artillery, two
powerful siege guns, two squadrons of the 14th Hussars, and drafts for
the Infantry battalions, amounting to 2,400 men. Thus not only was the
loss of 1,600 men in the five days' fighting round Spion Kop made good,
but the army was actually a thousand stronger than before its repulse.
Good and plentiful rations of meat and vegetables were given to the
troops, and their spirits were restored by the General's public
declaration that he had discovered the key to the enemy's position, and
the promise that within a week from the beginning of the impending
operation Ladysmith should be relieved. The account of the straits to
which the gallant garrison was now reduced by famine, disease, and war
increased the earnest desire of officers and men to engage the enemy
and, even at the greatest price, to break his lines. In spite of the
various inexplicable features which the actions of Colenso and Spion Kop
presented, the confidence of the army in Sir Redvers Buller was still
firm, and the knowledge that he himself would personally direct the
operations, instead of leaving their conduct to a divisional commander,
gave general satisfaction and relief.

On the afternoon of February 4 the superior officers were made
acquainted with the outlines of the plan of action to be followed. The
reader will, perhaps, remember the description in a former letter of the
Boer position before Potgieter's and Trichardt's Drift as a horizontal
note of interrogation, of which Spion Kop formed the centre angle--/\.
The fighting of the previous week had been directed towards the
straight line, and on the angle. The new operation was aimed at the
curve. The general scheme was to seize the hills which formed the left
of the enemy's position and roll him up from left to right. It was known
that the Boers were massed mainly in their central camp behind Spion
Kop, and that, as no demonstration was intended against the position in
front of Trichardt's Drift, their whole force would be occupying the
curve and guarding its right flank. The details of the plan were well
conceived.

The battle would begin by a demonstration against the Brakfontein
position, which the Boers had fortified by four tiers of trenches, with
bombproof casemates, barbed wire entanglements, and a line of redoubts,
so that it was obviously too strong to be carried frontally. This
demonstration would be made by Wynne's Brigade (formerly Woodgate's),
supported by six batteries of Artillery, the Howitzer Battery, and the
two 4.7-inch naval guns. These troops crossed the river by the pontoon
bridge at Potgieter's on the 3rd and 4th, relieving Lyttelton's Brigade
which had been in occupation of the advanced position on the low kopjes.

A new pontoon bridge was thrown at the angle of the river a mile below
Potgieter's, the purpose of which seemed to be to enable the frontal
attack to be fully supported. While the Artillery preparation of the
advance against Brakfontein and Wynne's advance were going on, Clery's
Division (consisting of Hart's Brigade and Hildyard's) and Lyttelton's
Brigade were to mass near the new pontoon bridge (No. 2), as if about to
support the frontal movement. When the bombardment had been in progress
for two hours these three brigades were to move, not towards the
Brakfontein position, but eastwards to Munger's Drift, throw a pontoon
bridge covered first by one battery of Field Artillery withdrawn from
the demonstration, secondly by the fire of guns which had been dragged
to the summit of Swartkop, and which formed a powerful battery of
fourteen pieces, viz., six 12-pounder long range naval guns, two
15-pounder guns of the 64th Field Battery, six 9-pounder mountain guns,
and lastly by the two 50-pounder siege guns. As soon as the bridge was
complete Lyttelton's Brigade would cross, and, ignoring the fire from
the Boer left, extended along the Doornkloof heights, attack the Vaal
Krantz ridge, which formed the left of the horseshoe curve around the
debouches of Potgieter's. This attack was to be covered on its right by
the guns already specified on Swartkop and the 64th Field Battery, and
prepared by the six artillery batteries employed in the demonstration,
which were to withdraw one by one at intervals of ten minutes, cross No.
2 pontoon bridge, and take up new positions opposite to the Vaal Krantz
ridge.

If and when Vaal Krantz was captured all six batteries were to move
across No. 3 bridge and take up positions on the hill, whence they could
prepare and support the further advance of Clery's Division, which,
having crossed, was to move past Vaal Krantz, pivot to the left on it,
and attack the Brakfontein position from its left flank. The 1st
Cavalry Brigade under Burn-Murdoch (Royals, 13th and 14th Hussars, and A
Battery R.H.A.) would also cross and run the gauntlet of Doornkloof and
break out on to the plateau beyond Clery's Division. The 2nd Cavalry
Brigade (South African Light Horse, Composite Regiment, Thorneycroft's,
and Bethune's Mounted Infantry, and the Colt Battery) were to guard the
right and rear of the attacking troops from any attack coming from
Doornkloof. Wynne was to co-operate as opportunity offered. Talbot Coke
was to remain in reserve. Such was the plan, and it seemed to all who
heard it good and clear. It gave scope to the whole force, and seemed to
offer all the conditions for a decisive trial of strength between the
two armies.

On Sunday afternoon the Infantry Brigades began to move to their
respective positions, and at daylight on the 5th the Cavalry Division
broke its camp behind spearman's. At nine minutes past seven he
bombardment of the Brakfontein position began, and by half-past seven
all the Artillery except the Swartkop guns were firing in a leisurely
fashion at the Boer redoubts and entrenchments. At the same time Wynne's
Brigade moved forward in dispersed formation towards the enemy, and the
Cavalry began to defile across the front and to mass near the three
Infantry Brigades collected near No. 2 pontoon bridge. For some time the
Boers made no reply, but at about ten o'clock their Vickers-Maxim opened
on the batteries firing from the Potgieter's plain, and the fire
gradually increased as other guns, some of great range, joined in, until
the Artillery was sharply engaged in an unsatisfactory duel--fifty guns
exposed in the open against six or seven guns concealed and impossible
to find. The Boer shells struck all along the advanced batteries,
bursting between the guns, throwing up huge fountains of dust and smoke,
and covering the gunners at times completely from view. Shrapnel shells
were also flung from both flanks and ripped the dusty plain with their
scattering bullets. But the Artillery stood to their work like men, and
though they apparently produced no impression on the Boer guns, did not
suffer as severely as might have been expected, losing no more than
fifteen officers and men altogether. At intervals of ten minutes the
batteries withdrew in beautiful order and ceremony and defiled across
the second pontoon bridge. Meanwhile Wynne's Brigade had advanced to
within twelve hundred yards of the Brakfontein position and retired,
drawing the enemy's heavy fire; the three brigades under Clery had moved
to the right near Munger's Drift; the Cavalry were massed in the hollows
at the foot of Swartkop; and the Engineers had constructed the third
pontoon bridge, performing their business with excellent method and
despatch under a sharp fire from Boer skirmishers and a Maxim.

The six batteries and the howitzers now took up positions opposite Vaal
Krantz, and seventy guns began to shell this ridge in regular
preparation and to reply to three Boer guns which had now opened from
Doornkloof and our extreme right. A loud and crashing cannonade
developed. At midday the Durham Light Infantry of Lyttelton's Brigade
crossed the third pontoon bridge and advanced briskly along the opposite
bank on the Vaal Krantz ridge. They were supported by the 3rd King's
Royal Rifles, and behind these the other two battalions of the Brigade
strengthened the attack. The troops moved across the open in fine style,
paying no attention to the enemy's guns on Doornkloof, which burst their
shrapnel at seven thousand yards (shrapnel at seven thousand yards!)
with remarkable accuracy. In an hour the leading companies had reached
the foot of the ridge, and the active riflemen could be seen clambering
swiftly up. As the advance continued one of the Boer Vickers-Maxim guns
which was posted in rear of Vaal Krantz found it wise to retire and
galloped off unscathed through a tremendous fire from our artillery: a
most wonderful escape.

The Durham Light Infantry carried the hill at the point of the bayonet,
losing seven officers and sixty or seventy men, and capturing five Boer
prisoners, besides ten horses and some wounded, Most of the enemy,
however, had retired before the attack, unable to endure the appalling
concentration of artillery which had prepared it. Among those who
remained to fight to the last were five or six armed Kaffirs, one of
whom shot an officer of the Durhams. To these no quarter was given.
Their employment by the Dutch in this war shows that while they
furiously complain of Khama's defence of his territory against their
raiding parties on the ground that white men must be killed by white
men, they have themselves no such scruples. There is no possible doubt
about the facts set forth above, and the incident should be carefully
noted by the public.

By nightfall the whole of General Lyttelton's Brigade had occupied Vaal
Krantz, and were entrenching themselves. The losses in the day's
fighting were not severe, and though no detailed statement has yet been
compiled, I do not think they exceeded one hundred and fifty. Part of
Sir Redvers Buller's plan had been successfully executed. The fact that
the action had not been opened until 7 A.M. and had been conducted in a
most leisurely manner left the programme only half completed. It
remained to pass Clery's Division across the third bridge, to plant the
batteries in their new position on Vaal Krantz, to set free the 1st
Cavalry Brigade in the plain beyond, and to begin the main attack on
Brakfontein. It remained and it still remains.

During the night of the 5th Lyttelton's Brigade made shelters and
traverses of stones, and secured the possession of the hill; but it was
now reported that field guns could not occupy the ridge because, first,
it was too steep and rocky--though this condition does not apparently
prevent the Boers dragging their heaviest guns to the tops of the
highest hills--and, secondly, because the enemy's long-range rifle fire
was too heavy. The hill, therefore, which had been successfully
captured, proved of no value whatever. Beyond it was a second position
which was of great strength, and which if it was ever to be taken must
be taken by the Infantry without Artillery support. This was considered
impossible or at any rate too costly and too dangerous to attempt.

During the next day the Boers continued to bombard the captured ridge,
and also maintained a harassing long-range musketry fire. A great gun
firing a hundred-pound 6-in. shell came into action from the top of
Doornkloof, throwing its huge projectiles on Vaal Krantz and about the
bivouacs generally; one of them exploded within a few yards of Sir
Redvers Buller. Two Vickers-Maxims from either side of the Boer position
fired at brief intervals, and other guns burst shrapnel effectively from
very long range on the solitary brigade which held Vaal Krantz. To this
bombardment the Field Artillery and the naval guns--seventy-two pieces
in all, both big and little--made a noisy but futile response. The
infantry of Lyttelton's Brigade, however, endured patiently throughout
the day, in spite of the galling cross-fire and severe losses. At about
four in the afternoon the Boers made a sudden attack on the hill,
creeping to within short range, and then opened a quick fire. The
Vickers-Maxim guns supported this vigorously. The pickets at the western
end of the hill were driven back with loss, and for a few minutes it
appeared that the hill would be retaken. But General Lyttelton ordered
half a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, supported by the King's
Royal Rifles, to clear the hill, and these fine troops, led by Colonel
Fitzgerald, rose up from their shelters and, giving three rousing
cheers--the thin, distant sound of which came back to the anxious,
watching army--swept the Boers back at the point of the bayonet. Colonel
Fitzgerald was, however, severely wounded.

While these things were passing a new pontoon bridge was being
constructed at a bend of the Tugela immediately under the Vaal Krantz
ridge, and by five o'clock this was finished. Nothing else was done
during the day, but at nightfall Lyttelton's Brigade was relieved by
Hildyard's, which marched across the new pontoon (No. 4) under a
desultory shell fire from an extreme range. Lyttelton's Brigade returned
under cover of darkness to a bivouac underneath the Zwartkop guns.
Their losses in the two days' operations had been 225 officers and men.

General Hildyard, with whom was Prince Christian Victor, spent the night
in improving the defences of the hill and in building new traverses and
head cover. At midnight the Boers made a fresh effort to regain the
position, and the sudden roar of musketry awakened the sleeping army.
The attack, however, was easily repulsed. At daybreak the shelling began
again, only now the Boers had brought up several new guns, and the
bombardment was much heavier. Owing, however, to the excellent cover
which had been arranged the casualties during the day did not exceed
forty. The Cavalry and Transport, who were sheltering in the hollows
underneath Zwartkop, were also shelled, and it was thought desirable to
move them back to a safer position.

In the evening Sir Redvers Buller, who throughout these two days had
been sitting under a tree in a somewhat exposed position, and who had
bivouacked with the troops, consulted with his generals. Many plans were
suggested, but there was a general consensus of opinion that it was
impossible to advance further along this line. At eleven at night
Hildyard's Brigade was withdrawn from Vaal Krantz, evacuating the
position in good order, and carrying with them their wounded, whom till
dark it had been impossible to collect. Orders were issued for the
general retirement of the army to Springfield and Spearman's, and by ten
o'clock on the 8th this operation was in full progress.

With feelings of bitter disappointment at not having been permitted to
fight the matter out, the Infantry, only two brigades of which had been
sharply engaged, marched by various routes to their former camping
grounds, and only their perfect discipline enabled them to control their
grief and anger. The Cavalry and Artillery followed in due course, and
thus the fourth attempt to relieve Ladysmith, which had been begun with
such hopes and enthusiasm, fizzled out into failure. It must not,
however, be imagined that the enemy conducted his defence without
proportionate loss.

What I have written is a plain record of facts, and I am so deeply
conscious of their significance that I shall attempt some explanation.

The Boer covering army numbers at least 12,000 men, with perhaps a dozen
excellent guns. They hold along the line of the Tugela what is
practically a continuous position of vast strength. Their superior
mobility, and the fact that they occupy the chord, while we must move
along the arc of the circle, enables them to forefront us with nearly
their whole force wherever an attack is aimed, however it may be
disguised. Therefore there is no way of avoiding a direct assault. Now,
according to Continental experience the attacking force should outnumber
the defence by three to one. Therefore Sir Redvers Buller should have
36,000 men. Instead of this he has only 22,000. Moreover, behind the
first row of positions, which practically runs along the edge of an
unbroken line of steep flat-topped hills, there is a second row standing
back from the edge at no great distance. Any attack on this second row
the Artillery cannot support, because from the plain below they are too
far off to find the Boer guns, and from the edge they are too close to
the enemy's riflemen. The ground is too broken, in the opinion of many
generals, for night operations. Therefore the attacking Infantry of
insufficient strength must face unaided the fire of cool, entrenched
riflemen, armed with magazine weapons and using smokeless powder.

Nevertheless, so excellent is the quality of the Infantry that if the
whole force were launched in attack it is not impossible that they would
carry everything before them. But after this first victory it will be
necessary to push on and attack the Boers investing Ladysmith. The line
of communications must be kept open behind the relieving army or it will
be itself in the most terrible danger. Already the Boers' position
beyond Potgieter's laps around us on three sides. What if we should
break through, only to have the door shut behind us? At least two
brigades would have to be left to hold the line of communications. The
rest, weakened by several fierce and bloody engagements, would not be
strong enough to effect the relief.

The idea of setting all on the turn of the battle is very grateful and
pleasant to the mind of the army, which only asks for a decisive trial
of strength, but Sir Redvers Buller has to remember that his army,
besides being the Ladysmith Relief Column, is also the only force which
can be spared to protect South Natal. Is he, therefore, justified in
running the greatest risks? On the other hand, how can we let Ladysmith
and all its gallant defenders fall into the hands of the enemy? It is
agonising to contemplate such a conclusion to all the efforts and
sacrifices that have been made. I believe and trust we shall try again.
As long as there is fighting one does not reflect on this horrible
situation. I have tried to explain some of the difficulties which
confront the General. I am not now concerned with the attempts that
have been made to overcome them. A great deal is incomprehensible, but
it may be safely said that if Sir Redvers Buller cannot relieve
Ladysmith with his present force we do not know of any other officer in
the British Service who would be likely to succeed.




CHAPTER XXI

HUSSAR HILL


[Illustration: Map of the Operations of the Natal Field Army
from January 11 to February 9.]

General Buller's Headquarters: February 15, 1900.

When Sir Redvers Buller broke off the combat of Vaal Krantz, and for the
third time ordered his unbeaten troops to retreat, it was clearly
understood that another attempt to penetrate the Boer lines was to be
made without delay.

The army has moved from Spearman's and Springfield to Chieveley, General
Lyttelton, who had succeeded Sir Francis Clery, in command of the 2nd
Division and 4th Brigade, marching via Pretorius's Farm on the 9th and
10th, Sir Charles Warren covering the withdrawal of the supplies and
transport and following on the 10th and 11th. The regular Cavalry
Brigade, under Burn-Murdoch, was left with two battalions to hold the
bridge at Springfield, beyond which place the Boers, who had crossed the
Tugela in some strength at Potgieter's, were reported to be showing
considerable activity. The left flank of the marching Infantry columns
was covered by Dundonald's Brigade of Light Horse, and the operations
were performed without interruption from the enemy. On the 12th orders
were issued to reconnoitre Hussar Hill, a grassy and wooded eminence
four miles to the east of Chieveley, and the direction of the next
attack was revealed. The reader of the accounts of this war is probably
familiar with the Colenso position and understands its great strength.
The proper left of this position rests on the rocky, scrub-covered hill
of Hlangwani, which rises on the British side of the Tugela. If this
hill can be captured and artillery placed on it, and if it can be
secured from cross fire, then all the trenches of Fort Wylie and along
the river bank will be completely enfiladed, and the Colenso position
will become untenable, so that Hlangwani is the key of the Colenso
position. In order, however, to guard this key carefully the Boers have
extended their left--as at Trichardt's Drift they extended their
right--until it occupies a very lofty range of mountains four or five
miles to the east of Hlangwani, and along all this front works have been
constructed on a judicious system of defence. The long delays have given
ample time to the enemy to complete his fortifications, and the trenches
here are more like forts than field works, being provided with overhead
cover against shells and carefully made loopholes. In front of them
stretches a bare slope, on either side rise formidable hills from which
long-range guns can make a continual cross-fire. Behind this position,
again, are others of great strength.

But there are also encouraging considerations. We are to make--at least
in spite of disappointments we hope and believe we are to make--a
supreme effort to relieve Ladysmith. At the same time we are the army
for the defence of South Natal. If we had put the matter to the test at
Potgieter's and failed, our line of communications might have been cut
behind us, and the whole army, weakened by the inevitable heavy losses
of attacking these great positions, might have been captured or
dispersed. Here we have the railway behind us. We are not as we were at
Potgieter's 'formed to a flank.' We derive an accession of strength from
the fact that the troops holding Railhead are now available for the
general action.

Besides these inducements this road is the shortest way. Buller,
therefore, has elected to lose his men and risk defeat--without which
risk no victory can be won---on this line. Whether he will succeed or
not were foolish to prophesy, but it is the common belief that this line
offers as good a chance as any other and that at last the army will be
given a fair run, and permitted to begin a general engagement and fight
it out to the end. If Buller goes in and wins he will have accomplished
a wonderful feat of arms, and will gain the lasting honour and gratitude
of his country. If he is beaten he will deserve the respect and sympathy
of all true soldiers as a man who has tried to the best of his ability
to perform a task for which his resources were inadequate. I hasten to
return to the chronicle. Hussar Hill--so-called because a small post of
the 13th Hussars was surprised on it six weeks ago and lost two men
killed--is the high ground opposite Hlangwani and the mountainous ridges
called Monte Cristo and Cingolo, on which the Artillery must be posted
to prepare the attack. Hence the reconnaissance of the 12th.

At eight o'clock--we never get up early in this war--Lord Dundonald
started from the cavalry camp near Stuart's Farm with the South African
Light Horse, the Composite Regiment, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry,
the Colt Battery, one battalion of Infantry, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,
and a battery of Field Artillery. The Irregular Horse were familiar with
the ground, and we soon occupied Hussar Hill, driving back a small Boer
patrol which was watching it, and wounding two of the enemy. A strong
picket line was thrown out all round the captured ground and a dropping
musketry fire began at long range with the Boers, who lay hidden in the
surrounding dongas. At noon Sir Redvers Buller arrived, and made a
prolonged reconnaissance of the ground with his telescope. At one
o'clock we were ordered to withdraw, and the difficult task of
extricating the advanced pickets from close contact with the enemy was
performed under a sharp fire, fortunately without the loss of a man.

After you leave Hussar Hill on the way back to Chieveley camp it is
necessary to cross a wide dip of ground. We had withdrawn several miles
in careful rearguard fashion, the guns and the battalion had gone back,
and the last two squadrons were walking across this dip towards the
ridge on the homeward side. Perhaps we had not curled in our tail quite
quick enough, or perhaps the enemy has grown more enterprising of late,
in any case just as we were reaching the ridge a single shot was fired
from Hussar Hill, and then without more ado a loud crackle of musketry
burst forth. The distance was nearly two thousand yards, but the
squadrons in close formation were a good target. Everybody walked for
about twenty yards, and then without the necessity of an order broke
into a brisk canter, opening the ranks to a dispersed formation at the
same time. It was very dry weather, and the bullets striking between the
horsemen raised large spurts of dust, so that it seemed that many men
must surely be hit. Moreover, the fire had swelled to a menacing roar. I
chanced to be riding with Colonel Byng in rear, and looking round saw
that we had good luck. For though bullets fell among the troopers quite
thickly enough, the ground two hundred yards further back was all alive
with jumping dust. The Boers were shooting short.

We reached the ridge and cover in a minute, and it was very pretty to
see these irregular soldiers stop their horses and dismount with their
carbines at once without any hesitation. Along the ridge Captain Hill's
Colt Battery was drawn up in line, and as soon as the front was clear
the four little pink guns began spluttering furiously. The whole of the
South African Light Horse dismounted and, lining the ridge, opened fire
with their rifles. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry came into line on
our left flank, and brought two tripod Maxims into action with them.
Lord Dundonald sent back word to the battery to halt and fire over our
heads, and Major Gough's Regiment and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who had
almost reached cover, turned round of their own accord and hurried
eagerly in the direction of the firing, which had become very loud on
both sides.

There now ensued a strange little skirmish, which would have been a
bloody rifle duel but for the great distance which separated the
combatants and for the cleverness with which friends and foes concealed
and sheltered themselves. Not less than four hundred men on either side
were firing as fast as modern rifles will allow. Between us stretched
the smooth green dip of ground. Beyond there rose the sharper outlines
of Hussar Hill, two or three sheds, and a few trees. That was where the
Boers were. But they were quite invisible to the naked eye, and no smoke
betrayed their positions. With a telescope they could be seen--a long
row of heads above the grass. We were equally hidden. Still their
bullets--a proportion of their bullets--found us, and I earnestly trust
that some of ours found them. Indeed there was a very hot fire, in spite
of the range. Yet no one was hit. Ah, yes, there was one, a tall trooper
turned sharply on his side, and two of his comrades carried him quickly
back behind a little house, shot through the thigh. A little further
along the firing line another was being helped to the rear. The Colt
Battery drew the cream of the fire, and Mr. Garrett, one of the experts
sent out by the firm, was shot through the ankle, but he continued to
work his gun. Captain Hill walked up and down his battery exposing
himself with great delight, and showing that he was a very worthy
representative of an Irish constituency.

I happened to pass along the line on some duty or other when I noticed
my younger brother, whose keen desire to take some part in the public
quarrel had led me, in spite of misgivings, to procure him a
lieutenancy, lying on the ground, with his troop. As I approached I saw
him start in the quick, peculiar manner of a stricken man. I asked him
at once whether he was hurt, and he said something--he thought it must
be a bullet--had hit him on the gaiter and numbed his leg. He was quite
sure it had not gone in, but when we had carried him away we found--as I
expected--that he was shot through the leg. The wound was not serious,
but the doctors declared he would be a month in hospital. It was his
baptism of fire, and I have since wondered at the strange caprice which
strikes down one man in his first skirmish and protects another time
after time. But I suppose all pitchers will get broken in the end.
Outwardly I sympathised with my brother in his misfortune, which he
mourned bitterly, since it prevented him taking part in the impending
battle, but secretly I confess myself well content that this young
gentleman should be honourably out of harm's way for a month.

It was neither our business nor our pleasure to remain and continue this
long-range duel with the Boers. Our work for the day was over, and all
were anxious to get home to luncheon. Accordingly, as soon as the
battery had come into action to cover our withdrawal we commenced
withdrawing squadron by squadron and finally broke off the engagement,
for the Boers were not inclined to follow further. At about three
o'clock our loss in this interesting affair was one officer, Lieutenant
John Churchill, and seven men of the South African Light Horse wounded
and a few horses. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry also had two
casualties, and there were two more in the Colt detachments. The Boers
were throughout invisible, but two days later when the ground was
revisited we found one dead burgher--so that at any rate they lost more
heavily than we. The Colt guns worked very well, and the effect of the
fire of a whole battery of these weapons was a marked diminution in the
enemy's musketry. They were mounted on the light carriages patented by
Lord Dundonald, and the advantage of these in enabling the guns to be
run back by hand, so as to avoid exposing the horses, was very obvious.

I shall leave the great operation which, as I write, has already begun,
to another letter, but since gaiety has its value in these troublous
times let the reader pay attention to the story of General Hart and the
third-class shot. Major-General Hart, who commands the Irish Brigade, is
a man of intrepid personal courage--indeed, to his complete contempt for
danger the heavy losses among his battalions, and particularly in the
Dublin Fusiliers, must be to some extent attributed. After Colenso there
were bitter things said on this account. But the reckless courage of the
General was so remarkable in subsequent actions that, being brave men
themselves, they forgave him everything for the sake of his daring.
During the first day at Spion Kop General Hart discovered a soldier
sitting safely behind a rock and a long way behind the firing line.

'Good afternoon, my man,' he said in his most nervous, apologetic voice;
'what are you doing here?'

'Sir,' replied the soldier, 'an officer told me to stop here, sir.'

'Oh! Why?'

'I'm a third-class shot, sir.'

'Dear me,' said the General after some reflection, 'that's an awful
pity, because you see you'll have to get quite close to the Boers to do
any good. Come along with me and I'll find you a nice place,' and a
mournful procession trailed off towards the most advanced
skirmishers.[3]

FOOTNOTES:

[3] The map at the end of Chapter XXV. illustrates this and succeeding
chapters.




CHAPTER XXII

THE ENGAGEMENT OF MONTE CRISTO


Cingolo Neck: February 19, 1900.

Not since I wrote the tale of my escape from Pretoria have I taken up my
pen with such feelings of satisfaction and contentment as I do to-night.
The period of doubt and hesitation is over. We have grasped the nettle
firmly, and as shrewdly as firmly, and have taken no hurt. It remains
only to pluck it. For heaven's sake no over-confidence or premature
elation; but there is really good hope that Sir Redvers Buller has
solved the Riddle of the Tugela--at last. At last! I expect there will
be some who will inquire--'Why not "at first"?' All I can answer is
this: There is certainly no more capable soldier of high rank in all the
army in Natal than Sir Redvers Buller. For three months he has been
trying his best to pierce the Boer lines and the barrier of mountain and
river which separates Ladysmith from food and friends; trying with an
army--magnificent in everything but numbers, and not inconsiderable even
in that respect--trying at a heavy price of blood in Africa, of anxiety
at home. Now, for the first time, it seems that he may succeed. Knowing
the General and the difficulties, I am inclined to ask, not whether he
might have succeeded sooner, but rather whether anyone else would have
succeeded at all. But to the chronicle!

Anyone who stands on Gun Hill near Chieveley can see the whole of the
Boer position about Colenso sweeping before him in a wide curve. The
mountain wall looks perfectly unbroken. The river lies everywhere buried
in its gorge, and is quite invisible. To the observer there is only a
smooth green bay of land sloping gently downward, and embraced by the
rocky, scrub-covered hills. Along this crescent of high ground runs--or
rather, by God's grace, ran the Boer line, strong in its natural
features, and entrenched from end to end. When the map is consulted,
however, it is seen that the Tugela does not flow uniformly along the
foot of the hills as might be expected, but that after passing Colenso
village, which is about the centre of the position, it plunges into the
mountainous country, and bends sharply northward; so that, though the
left of the Boer line might appear as strong as the right, there was
this difference, that the Boer right had the river on its front, the
Boer left had it in its rear.

The attack of the 15th of December had been directed against the Boer
right, because after reconnaissance Sir Redvers Buller deemed that, in
spite of the river advantage, the right was actually the weaker of the
two flanks. The attack of the 15th was repulsed with heavy loss. It
might, therefore, seem that little promise of success attended an attack
on the Boer left. The situation, however, was entirely altered by the
great reinforcements in heavy artillery which had reached the army, and
a position which formerly appeared unassailable now looked less
formidable.

Let us now consider the Boer left by itself. It ran in a chain of
sangars, trenches, and rifle pits, from Colenso village, through the
scrub by the river, over the rugged hill of Hlangwani, along a smooth
grass ridge we called 'The Green Hill,' and was extended to guard
against a turning movement on to the lofty wooded ridges of Monte Cristo
and Cingolo and the neck joining these two features. Sir Redvers
Buller's determination was to turn this widely extended position on its
extreme left, and to endeavour to crumple it from left to right. As it
were, a gigantic right arm was to reach out to the eastward, its
shoulder at Gun Hill, its elbow on Hussar Hill, its hand on Cingolo, its
fingers, the Irregular Cavalry Brigade, actually behind Cingolo.

On February 12th a reconnaissance in force of Hussar Hill was made by
Lord Dundonald. On the 14th the army moved east from Chieveley to occupy
this ground. General Hart with one brigade held Gun Hill and Railhead.
The First Cavalry Brigade watched the left flank at Springfield, but
with these exceptions the whole force marched for Hussar Hill. The
Irregular Cavalry covered the front, and the South African Light Horse,
thrown out far in advance, secured the position by half-past eight, just
in time to forestall a force of Boers which had been despatched, so soon
as the general movement of the British was evident, to resist the
capture of the hill. A short sharp skirmish followed, in which we lost a
few horses and men, and claim to have killed six Boers, and which was
terminated after half an hour by the arrival of the leading Infantry
battalion--the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. During the day the occupation was
completed, and the brigades of Generals Wynne, Coke, and Barton, then
joining Warren's Division with the Artillery, entrenched themselves
strongly and bivouacked on the hill. Meanwhile Lyttelton's Division
marched from its camp in the Blue Krantz Valley, east of Chieveley,
along the valley to a position short of the eastern spurs of Hussar
Hill. These spurs are more thickly wooded and broken than the rest of
the hill, and about four o'clock in the afternoon some hundred Boers
established themselves among the rocks and opened a sharp fire. They
were, however, expelled from their position by the Artillery and by the
fire of the advanced battalions of Lyttelton's Division operating from
the Blue Krantz Valley.

During the 15th and 16th a desultory artillery duel proceeded on both
sides with slight loss to us. The water question presented some
difficulty, as the Blue Krantz River was several miles from Hussar Hill
and the hill itself was waterless. A system of iron tanks mounted on ox
waggons was arranged, and a sufficient though small supply maintained.
The heavy artillery was also brought into action and strongly
entrenched. The formidable nature of the enemy's position and the
evident care with which he had fortified it may well have added to the
delay by giving cause for the gravest reflection.

On the afternoon of the 16th Sir Redvers Buller resolved to plunge, and
orders were issued for a general advance at dawn. Colonel Sandbach,
under whose supervision the Intelligence Department has attained a new
and a refreshing standard of efficiency, made comprehensive and, as was
afterwards proved, accurate reports of the enemy's strength and spirit,
and strongly recommended the attack on the left flank. Two hours before
dawn the army was on the move. Hart's Brigade, the 6-inch and other
great guns at Chieveley, guarded Railhead. Hlangwani Hill, and the long
line of entrenchments rimming the Green Hill, were masked and fronted by
the display of the field and siege batteries, whose strength in guns was
as follows:

                                                   Guns
     Four 5-inch siege guns.......................... 4
     Six naval twelve-pounder long-range guns........ 6
     Two 4.7-inch naval guns......................... 2
     One battery howitzers........................... 6
     One battery corps artillery (R.F.A.)............ 6
     Two brigade divisions R.F.A ....................36
     One mountain battery............................ 6
                                                     --
                                                     66

and which were also able to prepare and support the attack on Cingolo
Neck and Monte Cristo Ridge. Cingolo Ridge itself, however, was almost
beyond their reach. Lyttelton's Division with Wynne's Fusilier Brigade
was to stretch out to the eastward and, by a wide turning movement
pivoting on the guns and Barton's Brigade, attack the Cingolo Ridge.
Dundonald's Cavalry Brigade was to make a far wider detour and climb up
the end of the ridge, thus making absolutely certain of finding the
enemy's left flank at last.

By daybreak all were moving, and as the Irregular Cavalry forded the
Blue Krantz stream on their enveloping march we heard the boom of the
first gun. The usual leisurely bombardment had begun, and I counted only
thirty shells in the first ten minutes, which was not very hard work for
the gunners considering that nearly seventy guns were in action. But the
Artillery never hurry themselves, and indeed I do not remember to have
heard in this war a really good cannonade, such as we had at Omdurman,
except for a few minutes at Vaal Krantz.

The Cavalry Brigade marched ten miles eastward through most broken and
difficult country, all rock, high grass, and dense thickets, which made
it imperative to move in single file, and the sound of the general
action grew fainter and fainter. Gradually, however, we began to turn
again towards it. The slope of the ground rose against us. The scrub
became more dense. To ride further was impossible. We dismounted and led
our horses, who scrambled and blundered painfully among the trees and
boulders. So scattered was our formation that I did not care to imagine
what would have happened had the enemy put in an appearance. But our
safety lay in these same natural difficulties. The Boers doubtless
reflected, 'No one will ever try to go through such ground as
that'--besides which war cannot be made without running risks. The
soldier must chance his life.

The general must not be afraid to brave disaster. But how tolerant the
arm-chair critics should be of men who try daring _coups_ and fail! You
must put your head into the lion's mouth if the performance is to be a
success. And then I remembered the attacks on the brave and capable
General Gatacre after Stormberg, and wondered what would be said of us
if we were caught 'dismounted and scattered in a wood.'

At length we reached the foot of the hill and halted to reconnoitre the
slopes as far as was possible. After half an hour, since nothing could
be seen, the advance was resumed up the side of a precipice and through
a jungle so thick that we had to cut our road. It was eleven o'clock
before we reached the summit of the ridge and emerged on to a more or
less open plateau, diversified with patches of wood and heaps of great
boulders. Two squadrons had re-formed on the top and had deployed to
cover the others. The troopers of the remaining seven squadrons were
working their way up about four to the minute. It would take at least
two hours before the command was complete: and meanwhile! Suddenly there
was a rifle shot. Then another, then a regular splutter of musketry.
Bullets began to whizz overhead. The Boers had discovered us.

Now came the crisis. There might be a hundred Boers on the hill, in
which case all was well. On the other hand there might be a thousand, in
which case----! and retreat down the precipice was, of course, quite out
of the question. Luckily there were only about a hundred, and after a
skirmish, in which one of the Natal Carabineers was unhappily killed,
they fell back and we completed our deployment on the top of the hill.

The squadron of Imperial Light Horse and the Natal Carabineers now
advanced slowly along the ridge, clearing it of the enemy, slaying and
retrieving one field cornet and two burghers, and capturing ten horses.
Half-way along the Queen's, the right battalion of Hildyard's attack,
which, having made a smaller detour, had now rushed the top, came into
line and supported the dismounted men. The rest of the Cavalry descended
into the plain on the other side of the ridge, outflanking and even
threatening the retreat of its defenders, so that in the end the Boers,
who were very weak in numbers, were hunted off the ridge altogether, and
Cingolo was ours. Cingolo and Monte Cristo are joined together by a neck
of ground from which both heights rise steeply. On either side of Monte
Cristo and Cingolo long spurs run at right angles to the main hill.

By the operations of the 17th the Boer line had been twisted off
Cingolo, and turned back along the subsidiary spurs of Monte Cristo, and
the British forces had placed themselves diagonally across the left of
the Boer position thus:

[Illustration: Plan of position at Monte Cristo.]

The advantages of this situation were to be enjoyed on the morrow.

Finding our further advance barred by the turned-back position the enemy
had adopted, and which we could only attack frontally, the Cavalry
threw out a line of outposts which were soon engaged in a long-range
rifle duel, and prepared to bivouac for the night. Cingolo Ridge was
meanwhile strongly occupied by the Infantry, whose line ran from its
highest peak slantwise across the valley of the Gomba Stream to Hussar
Hill, where it found its pivot in Barton's Brigade and the Artillery.
The Boers, who were much disconcerted by the change in the situation,
showed themselves ostentatiously on the turned-back ridge of their
position as if to make themselves appear in great strength, and
derisively hoisted white flags on their guns. The Colonial and American
troopers (for in the South African Light Horse we have a great many
Americans, and one even who served under Sheridan) made some exceedingly
good practice at the extreme ranges. So the afternoon passed, and the
night came in comparative quiet.

At dawn the artillery began on both sides, and we were ourselves
awakened by Creusot shells bursting in our bivouac. The enemy's fire
was chiefly directed on the company of the Queen's which was holding the
top of Cingolo, and only the good cover which the great rocks afforded
prevented serious losses. As it was several men were injured. But we
knew that we held the best cards; and so did the Boers. At eight o'clock
Hildyard's Brigade advanced against the peak of the Monte Cristo ridge
which lay beyond the neck. The West Yorks led, the Queen's and East
Surrey supported. The musketry swelled into a constant crackle like the
noise of a good fire roaring up the chimney, but, in spite of more than
a hundred casualties, the advance never checked for an instant, and by
half-past ten o'clock the bayonets of the attacking infantry began to
glitter among the trees of the summit. The Boers, who were lining a
hastily-dug trench half way along the ridge, threatened in front with an
overwhelming force and assailed in flank by the long-range fire of the
Cavalry, began to fall back. By eleven o'clock the fight on the part of
the enemy resolved itself into a rearguard action.

Under the pressure of the advancing and enveloping army this
degenerated very rapidly. When the Dutchman makes up his mind to go he
throws all dignity to the winds, and I have never seen an enemy leave
the field in such a hurry as did these valiant Boers who found their
flank turned, and remembered for the first time that there was a deep
river behind them. Shortly after twelve o'clock the summit of the ridge
of Monte Cristo was in our hands. The spurs which started at right
angles from it were, of course, now enfiladed and commanded. The Boers
evacuated both in great haste. The eastern spur was what I have called
the 'turned-back' position. The Cavalry under Dundonald. galloped
forward and seized it as soon as the enemy were seen in motion, and from
this advantageous standpoint we fired heavily into their line of
retreat. They scarcely waited to fire back, and we had only two men and
a few horses wounded.

The spur on the Colenso or western side was none other than the Green
Hill itself, and judging rightly that its frowning entrenchments were
now empty of defenders Sir Redvers Buller ordered a general advance
frontally against it. Two miles of trenches were taken with scarcely any
loss. The enemy fled in disorder across the river. A few prisoners, some
wounded, several cartloads of ammunition and stores, five camps with all
kinds of Boer material, and last of all, and compared to which all else
was insignificant, the dominating Monte Cristo ridge stretching
northward to within an easy spring of Bulwana Hill, were the prize of
victory. The soldiers, delighted at the change of fortune, slept in the
Boer tents--or would have done had these not been disgustingly foul and
stinking.

From the captured ridge we could look right down into Ladysmith, and at
the first opportunity I climbed up to see it for myself. Only eight
miles away stood the poor little persecuted town, with whose fate there
is wrapt up the honour of the Empire, and for whose sake so many hundred
good soldiers have given life or limb--a twenty-acre patch of tin houses
and blue gum trees, but famous to the uttermost ends of the earth.

The victory of Monte Cristo has revolutionised the situation in Natal.
It has laid open a practicable road to Ladysmith. Great difficulties and
heavy opposition have yet to be encountered and overcome, but the word
'impossible' must no longer be--should, perhaps, never have been used.
The success was won at the cost of less than two hundred men killed and
wounded, and surely no army more than the Army of Natal deserves a
cheaply bought triumph.




CHAPTER XXIII

THE PASSAGE OF THE TUGELA


Hospital Ship 'Maine': March 4, 1900.

Since I finished my last letter, on February the 21st, I have found no
time to sit down to write until now, because we have passed through a
period of ceaseless struggle and emotion, and I have been seeing so many
things that I could not pause to record anything. It has been as if a
painter prepared himself to paint some portrait, but was so fascinated
by the beauty of his model that he could not turn his eyes from her face
to the canvas; only that the spectacles which have held me have not
always been beautiful. Now the great event is over, the long and bloody
conflict around Ladysmith has been gloriously decided, and I take a few
days' leisure on the good ship _Maine_, where everyone is busy getting
well, to think about it all and set down some things on paper.

First and foremost there was the Monte Cristo ridge, that we had
captured on the 18th, which gave us the Green Hill, Hlangwani Hill, and,
when we chose to take it, the whole of the Hlangwani plateau. The Monte
Cristo ridge is the centrepiece to the whole of this battle. As soon as
we had won it I telegraphed to the _Morning Post_ that now at last
success was a distinct possibility. With this important feature in our
possession it was certain that we held the key to Ladysmith, and though
we might fumble a little with the lock, sooner or later, barring the
accidents of war, we should open the door.

As Monte Cristo had given Sir Redvers Buller Hlangwani, so Hlangwani
rendered the whole of the western section (the eastern section was
already in our hands) of the Colenso position untenable by the enemy,
and they, finding themselves commanded and enfiladed, forthwith
evacuated it. On the 19th General Buller made good his position on Green
Hill, occupied Hlangwani with Barton's Brigade, built or improved his
roads and communications from Hussar Hill across the Gomba Valley, and
brought up his heavy guns. The Boers, who were mostly on the other side
of the river, resisted stubbornly with artillery, with their
Vickers-Maxim guns and the fire of skirmishers, so that we suffered some
slight loss, but could not be said to have wasted the day. On the 20th
the south side of the Tugela was entirely cleared of the enemy, who
retired across the bridge they had built, and, moreover, a heavy battery
was established on the spurs of Hlangwani to drive them out of Colenso.
In the afternoon Hart's Brigade advanced from Chieveley, and his
leading-battalion, under Major Stuart-Wortley, occupied Colenso village
without any resistance.

The question now arose--Where should the river be crossed? Sir Redvers
Buller possessed the whole of the Hlangwani plateau, which, as the
reader may perceive by looking at the map opposite p. 448, fills up the
re-entrant angle made opposite Pieters by the Tugela after it leaves
Colenso. From this Hlangwani plateau he could either cross the river
where it ran north and south or where it ran east and west. Sir Redvers
Buller determined to cross the former reach beyond Colenso village. To
do this he had to let go his hold on the Monte Cristo ridge and resign
all the advantages which its possession had given him, and had besides
to descend into the low ground, where his army must be cramped between
the high hills on its left and the river on its right.

There was, of course, something to be said for the other plan, which was
advocated strongly by Sir Charles Warren. The crossing, it was urged,
was absolutely safe, being commanded on all sides by our guns, and the
enemy could make no opposition except with artillery. Moreover, the army
would get on its line of railway and could 'advance along the railroad.'
This last was a purely imaginary advantage, to be sure, because the
railway had no rolling-stock, and was disconnected from the rest of the
line by the destruction of the Tugela bridge. But what weighed with the
Commander-in-Chief much more than the representations of his lieutenant
was the accumulating evidence that the enemy were in full retreat. The
Intelligence reports all pointed to this situation. Boers had ridden off
in all directions. Waggons were seen trekking along every road to the
north and west. The camps between us and Ladysmith began to break up.
Everyone said, 'This is the result of Lord Roberts's advance: the Boers
find themselves now too weak to hold us off. They have raised the
siege.'

But this conclusion proved false in the sense that it was premature.
Undoubtedly the Boers had been reduced in strength by about 5,000 men,
who had been sent into the Free State for its defence. Until the Monte
Cristo ridge was lost to them they deemed themselves quite strong enough
to maintain the siege. When, however, this position was captured, the
situation was revolutionised. They saw that we had found their flank,
and thoroughly appreciated the significance and value of the long high
wedge of ground, which cut right across the left of their positions, and
seemed to stretch away almost to Bulwana Mountain. They knew perfectly
well that if we advanced by our right along the line of this ridge,
which they called 'the Bush Kop,' supporting ourselves by it as a man
might rest his hand on a balustrade, we could turn their Pieters
position just as we had already turned their entrenchments at Colenso.

Therein lay the true reason of their retirement, and in attributing it
either to Lord Roberts's operations or to the beating we had given them
on the 18th we made a mistake, which was not repaired until much blood
had been shed.

I draw a rough diagram to assist the reader who will take the trouble to
study the map. It is only drawn from memory, and its object is to show
how completely the Monte Cristo ridge turned both the line of
entrenchments through Colenso and that before Pieters. But no diagrams,
however exaggerated, would convince so well as would the actual ground.

[Illustration: Plan of the Colenso Position.]

In the belief, however, that the enemy were in retreat the General
resolved to cross the river at A by a pontoon bridge and follow the
railway line. On the 21st, therefore, he moved his army westward across
the Hlangwani plateau, threw his bridge, and during the afternoon passed
his two leading infantry brigades over it. As soon as the Boers
perceived that he had chosen this line of advance their hopes revived.
'Oh,' we may imagine them saying, 'if you propose to go that way, things
are not so bad after all.' So they returned to the number of about nine
thousand burghers, and manned the trenches of the Pieters position, with
the result that Wynne's Lancashire Brigade, which was the first to
cross, soon found itself engaged in a sharp action among the low-kopjes,
and suffered a hundred and fifty casualties, including its General,
before dark. Musketry fire was continuous throughout the night. The 1st
Cavalry Brigade had been brought in from Springfield on the 20th, and on
the morning of the 22nd both the Regular and Irregular Cavalry were to
have crossed the river. We accordingly marched from our camp at the neck
between Cingolo and Monte Cristo and met the 1st Cavalry Brigade, which
had come from Chievejey, at the pontoon bridge. A brisk action was
crackling away beyond the river, and it looked as if the ground scarcely
admitted of our intervention. Indeed, we had hardly arrived when a
Staff Officer came up, and brought us orders to camp near Hlangwani
Hill, as we should not cross that day.

Presently I talked to the Staff Officer, who chanced to be a friend of
mine, and chanced, besides, to be a man with a capacity for sustained
thought, an eye for country, and some imagination. He said: 'I don't
like the situation; there are more of them than we expected. We have
come down off our high ground. We have taken all the big guns off the
big hills. We are getting ourselves cramped up among these kopjes in the
valley of the Tugela. It will be like being in the Coliseum and shot at
by every row of seats.'

Sir Redvers Buller, however, still believing he had only a rearguard in
front of him, was determined to persevere. It is, perhaps, his strongest
characteristic obstinately to pursue his plan in spite of all advice, in
spite, too, of his horror of bloodshed, until himself convinced that it
is impracticable. The moment he is satisfied that this is the case no
considerations of sentiment or effect prevent him from coming back and
starting afresh. No modern General ever cared less for what the world
might say. However unpalatable and humiliating a retreat might be, he
would make one so soon as he was persuaded that adverse chances lay
before him. 'To get there in the end,' was his guiding principle. Nor
would the General consent to imperil the ultimate success by asking his
soldiers to make a supreme effort to redress a false tactical move. It
was a principle which led us to much blood and bitter disappointment,
but in the end to victory.

Not yet convinced, General Buller, pressing forward, moved the whole of
his infantry, with the exception of Barton's Brigade, and nearly all the
artillery, heavy and field, across the river, and in the afternoon sent
two battalions from Norcott's Brigade and the Lancashire Brigade--to the
vacant command of which Colonel Kitchener had been appointed--forward
against the low kopjes. By nightfall a good deal of this low, rolling
ground was in our possession, though at some cost in men and officers.

At dusk the Boers made a fierce and furious counter-attack. I was
watching the operations from Hlangwani Hill through a powerful
telescope. As the light died my companions climbed down the rocks to the
Cavalry camp and left me alone staring at the bright flashes of the guns
which stabbed the obscurity on all sides. Suddenly, above the booming of
the cannon, there arose the harsh rattling roar of a tremendous
fusillade. Without a single intermission this continued for several
hours. The Howitzer Battery, in spite of the darkness, evidently
considered the situation demanded its efforts, and fired salvoes of
lyddite shells, which, bursting in the direction of the Boer positions,
lit up the whole scene with flaring explosions. I went anxiously to bed
that night, wondering what was passing beyond the river, and the last
thing I can remember was the musketry drumming away with unabated
vigour.

There was still a steady splutter at dawn on the 23rd, and before the
light was full grown the guns joined in the din. We eagerly sought for
news of what had passed. Apparently the result was not unfavourable to
the army. 'Push for Ladysmith to-day, horse, foot, and artillery' was
the order, 'Both cavalry brigades to cross the river at once.' Details
were scarce and doubtful. Indeed, I cannot yet give any accurate
description of the fighting on the night of the 22nd, for it was of a
confused and desperate nature, and many men must tell their tale before
any general account can be written.

What happened, briefly described, was that the Boers attacked heavily at
nightfall with rifle fire all along the line, and, in their eagerness to
dislodge the troops, came to close quarters on several occasions at
various points. At least two bayonet charges are recorded. Sixteen men
of Stuart Wortley's Composite Battalion of Reservists of the Rifle
Brigade and King's Royal Rifles showed blood on their bayonets in the
morning. About three hundred officers and men were killed or wounded.
The Boers also suffered heavily, leaving dead on the ground, among
others a grandson of President Kruger. Prisoners were made and lost,
taken and rescued by both sides; but the daylight showed that victory
rested with the British, for the infantry were revealed still
tenaciously holding all their positions.

At eight o'clock the cavalry crossed the river under shell fire directed
on the bridge, and were massed at Fort Wylie, near Colenso. I rode along
the railway line to watch the action from one of the low kopjes. A
capricious shell fire annoyed the whole army as it sheltered behind the
rocky hills, and an unceasing stream of stretchers from the front bore
true witness to the serious nature of the conflict, for this was the
third and bloodiest day of the seven days' fighting called the battle of
Pieters.

I found Sir Redvers Buller and his Staff in a somewhat exposed position,
whence an excellent view could be obtained. The General displayed his
customary composure, asked me how my brother's wound was getting on, and
told me that he had just ordered Hart's Brigade, supported by two
battalions from Lyttelton's Division, to assault the hill marked '3' on
my diagram, and hereinafter called Inniskilling Hill. 'I have told Hart
to follow the railway. I think he can get round to their left flank
under cover of the river bank,' he said, 'but we must be prepared for a
counter-attack on our left as soon as they see what I'm up to;' and he
then made certain dispositions of his cavalry, which brought the South
African Light Horse close up to the wooded kopje on which we stood. I
must now describe the main Pieters position, one hill of which was about
to be attacked.

It ran, as the diagram shows, from the high and, so far as we were
concerned, inaccessible hills on the west to the angle of the river, and
then along the three hills marked 3, 2, and 1. I use this inverted
sequence of numbers because we were now attacking them in the wrong
order.

Sir Redvers Buller's plan was as follows: On the 22nd he had taken the
low kopjes, and his powerful artillery gave him complete command of the
river gorge. Behind the kopjes, which acted as a kind of shield, and
along the river gorge he proposed to advance his infantry until the
angle of the river was passed and there was room to stretch out his,
till then, cramped right arm and reach round the enemy's left on
Inniskilling Hill, and so crumple it.

This perilous and difficult task was entrusted to the Irish Brigade,
which comprised the Dublin Fusiliers, the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the
Connaught Rangers, and the Imperial Light Infantry, who had temporarily
replaced the Border Regiment--in all about three thousand men, supported
by two thousand more. Their commander, General Hart, was one of the
bravest officers in the army, and it was generally felt that such a
leader and such troops could carry the business through if success lay
within the scope of human efforts.

The account of the ensuing operation is so tragic and full of mournful
interest that I must leave it to another letter.




CHAPTER XXIV

THE BATTLE OF PIETERS: THE THIRD DAY


Hospital ship 'Maine': March 5, 1900.

At half-past twelve on the 23rd General Hart ordered his brigade to
advance. The battalions, which were sheltering among stone walls and
other hastily constructed cover on the reverse slope of the kopje
immediately in front of that on which we stood, rose up one by one and
formed in rank. They then moved off in single file along the railroad,
the Inniskilling Fusiliers leading, the Connaught Rangers, Dublin
Fusiliers, and the Imperial Light Infantry following in succession. At
the same time the Durham Light Infantry and the 2nd Rifle Brigade began
to march to take the place of the assaulting brigade on the advanced
kopje. Wishing to have a nearer view of the attack, I descended the
wooded hill, cantered along the railway--down which the procession of
laden stretchers, now hardly interrupted for three days, was still
moving--and, dismounting, climbed the rocky sides of the advanced kopje.
On the top, in a little half-circle of stones, I found General
Lyttelton, who received me kindly, and together we watched the
development of the operation. Nearly a mile of the railway line was
visible, and along it the stream of Infantry flowed steadily. The
telescope showed the soldiers walking quite slowly, with their rifles at
the slope. Thus far, at least, they were not under fire. The low kopjes
which were held by the other brigades shielded the movement. A mile away
the river and railway turned sharply to the right; the river plunged
into a steep gorge, and the railway was lost in a cutting. There was
certainly plenty of cover; but just before the cutting was reached the
iron bridge across the Onderbrook Spruit had to be crossed, and this was
evidently commanded by the enemy's riflemen. Beyond the railway and the
moving trickle of men the brown dark face of Inniskilling Hill, crowned
with sangars and entrenchments, rose up gloomy and, as yet, silent.

The patter of musketry along the left of the army, which reached back
from the advanced kopjes to Colenso village, the boom of the heavy guns
across the river, and the ceaseless thudding of the Field Artillery
making a leisurely preparation, were an almost unnoticed accompaniment
to the scene. Before us the Infantry were moving steadily nearer to the
hill and the open ground by the railway bridge, and we listened amid the
comparatively peaceful din for the impending fire storm.

The head of the column reached the exposed ground, and the soldiers
began to walk across it. Then at once above the average fusillade and
cannonade rose the extraordinary rattling roll of Mauser musketry in
great volume. If the reader wishes to know exactly what this is like he
must drum the fingers of both his hands on a wooden table, one after
the other as quickly and as hard as he can. I turned my telescope on the
Dutch defences. They were no longer deserted. All along the rim of the
trenches, clear cut and jet black, against the sky stood a crowded line
of slouch-hatted men, visible as far as their shoulders, and wielding
what looked like thin sticks.

Far below by the red ironwork of the railway bridge--2,000 yards, at
least, from the trenches--the surface of the ground was blurred and
dusty. Across the bridge the Infantry were still moving, but no longer
slowly--they were running for their lives. Man after man emerged from
the sheltered railroad, which ran like a covered way across the enemy's
front, into the open and the driving hail of bullets, ran the gauntlet
and dropped down the embankment on the further side of the bridge into
safety again. The range was great, but a good many soldiers were hit and
lay scattered about the ironwork of the bridge. 'Pom-pom-pom,'
'pom-pom-pom,' and so on, twenty times went the Boer automatic gun, and
the flights of little shells spotted the bridge with puffs of white
smoke. But the advancing Infantry never hesitated for a moment, and
continued to scamper across the dangerous ground, paying their toll
accordingly. More than sixty men were shot in this short space. Yet this
was not the attack. This was only the preliminary movement across the
enemy's front.

The enemy's shells, which occasionally burst on the advanced kopje, and
a whistle of stray bullets from the left, advised us to change our
position, and we moved a little further down the slope towards the
river. Here the bridge was no longer visible. I looked towards the
hill-top, whence the roar of musketry was ceaselessly proceeding. The
Artillery had seen the slouch hats, too, and forgetting their usual
apathy in the joy of a live target, concentrated a most hellish and
terrible fire on the trenches.

Meanwhile the afternoon had been passing. The Infantry had filed
steadily across the front, and the two leading battalions had already
accumulated on the eastern spurs of Inniskilling Hill. At four o'clock
General Hart ordered the attack, and the troops forthwith began to
climb the slopes. The broken ground delayed their progress, and it was
nearly sunset by the time they had reached the furthest position which
could be gained under cover. The Boer entrenchments were about four
hundred yards away. The _arete_ by which the Inniskillings had advanced
was bare, and swept by a dreadful frontal fire from the works on the
summit and a still more terrible flanking fire from the other hills. It
was so narrow that, though only four companies were arranged in the
firing line, there was scarcely room for two to deploy. There was not,
however, the slightest hesitation, and as we watched with straining eyes
we could see the leading companies rise up together and run swiftly
forward on the enemy's works with inspiring dash and enthusiasm.

But if the attack was superb, the defence was magnificent; nor could the
devoted heroism of the Irish soldiers surpass the stout endurance of the
Dutch. The Artillery redoubled their efforts. The whole summit of the
hill was alive with shell. Shrapnel flashed into being above the crests,
and the ground sprang up into dust whipped by the showers of bullets and
splinters. Again and again whole sections of the entrenchments vanished
in an awful uprush of black earth and smoke, smothering the fierce blaze
of the lyddite shells from the howitzers and heavy artillery. The
cannonade grew to tremendous thundering hum. Not less than sixty guns
were firing continuously on the Boer trenches. But the musketry was
never subdued for an instant. Amid the smoke and the dust the slouch
hats could still be seen. The Dutch, firm and undaunted, stood to their
parapets and plied their rifles with deadly effect.

The terrible power of the Mauser rifle was displayed. As the charging
companies met the storm of bullets they were swept away. Officers and
men fell by scores on the narrow ridge. Though assailed in front and
flank by the hideous whispering Death, the survivors hurried obstinately
onward, until their own artillery were forced to cease firing, and it
seemed that, in spite of bullets, flesh and blood would prevail. But at
the last supreme moment the weakness of the attack was shown. The
Inniskillings had almost reached their goal. They were too few to effect
their purpose; and when the Boers saw that the attack had withered they
shot all the straighter, and several of the boldest leapt out from their
trenches and, running forward to meet the soldiers, discharged their
magazines at the closest range. It was a frantic scene of blood and
fury.

Thus confronted, the Irish perished rather than retire. A few men indeed
ran back down the slope to the nearest cover, and there savagely turned
to bay, but the greater part of the front line was shot down. Other
companies, some from the Connaught Rangers, some headed by the brave
Colonel Sitwell, from the Dublin Fusiliers, advanced to renew--it was
already too late to support--the attack, and as the light faded another
fierce and bloody assault was delivered and was repulsed. Yet the Irish
soldiers would not leave the hill, and, persuaded at length that they
could not advance further, they lay down on the ground they had won,
and began to build walls and shelters, from behind which they opened a
revengeful fire on the exulting Boers. In the two attacks both colonels,
three majors, twenty officers, and six hundred men had fallen out of an
engaged force of scarcely one thousand two hundred. Then darkness pulled
down the curtain, and the tragedy came to an end for the day.

All through the night of the 23rd a heavy rifle fire was maintained by
both sides. Stray bullets whistled about the bivouacs, and the South
African Light Horse, who had selected a most sheltered spot to sleep in,
had a trooper hit. There were a certain number of casualties along the
whole front. As soon as it was daylight I rode out with Captain Brooke
to learn what had happened in the night. We knew that the hill had not
been carried before dusk, but hoped, since the combatants were so close
together, that in the darkness the bayonet would have settled the
matter.

We had just reached the hollow behind the advanced kopje from which I
had watched the attack on the previous evening, when suddenly a shrapnel
shell burst in the air above our heads with a sharp, startling bang. The
hollow and slope of the hill were crowded with Infantry battalions lying
down in quarter column. The bullets and splinters of the shell smote the
ground on all sides. We were both mounted and in the centre of the cone
of dispersion. I was immediately conscious that nothing had happened to
me, though the dust around my horse was flicked up, and I concluded that
everyone had enjoyed equally good fortune. Indeed, I turned to Brooke,
and was about to elaborate my theory that shrapnel is comparatively
harmless, when I saw some stir and turmoil and no less than eight men
were picked up killed or wounded by this explosion. I have only once
before seen in war such a successful shell, and on that occasion I was
studying the effect from the other side.

My respect for modern artillery was mightily increased by this example
of its power. Two more shells followed in quick succession. The first
struck down four men, and broke in two the leg of an Infantry officer's
charger, so that the poor beast galloped about in a circle, preventing
his rider from dismounting for some time; the second shore along the
Howitzer Battery, killing one soldier and wounding an officer, five
soldiers, and three horses. All this occurred in a space of about two
minutes, and the three shells between them accounted for nineteen men
and four horses. Then the gun, which was firing 'on spec,' and could not
see the effect of its fire, turned its attention elsewhere; but the
thought forced itself on me, 'Fancy if there had been a battery.' The
crowded Infantry waiting in support would certainly have been driven out
of the re-entrant with frightful slaughter. Yet in a European war there
would have been not one, but three or four batteries. I do not see how
troops can be handled in masses under such conditions, even when in
support and on reverse slopes. Future warfare must depend on the
individual.

We climbed on to the top of the kopje, which was sprinkled with staff
officers and others--all much interested in the exhibition of shell
fire, which they discussed as a purely scientific question. Inniskilling
Hill was still crowned with the enemy, though they no longer showed
above their trenches. Its slopes were scored with numerous brown lines,
the stone walls built by the attacking brigade during the night, and
behind these the telescope showed the Infantry clustering thickly. The
Boers on their part had made some new trenches in advance of those on
the crest of the hill, so that the opposing firing lines were scarcely
three hundred yards apart, which meant that everyone in them must lie
still or run grave risks. Thus they remained all day, firing at each
other continually, while on the bare ground between them the dead and
wounded lay thickly scattered, the dead mixed with the living, the
wounded untended, without dressings, food, or water, and harassed by the
fire from both sides and from our artillery. It was a very painful thing
to watch these poor fellows moving about feebly and trying to wriggle
themselves into some position of safety, and it reminded me of the
wounded Dervishes after Omdurman--only these were our own countrymen.

It seems that a misunderstanding, of the rights and wrongs of which the
reader shall be himself a judge, arose with the enemy. When day broke,
the Boers, who were much nearer to the wounded than were our troops,
came out of their trenches with a Red Cross flag, and the firing
thereupon ceased locally. Our people ought then to have been ready to
come forward with another Red Cross flag, and an informal truce might
easily have been arranged for an hour or two. Unfortunately, however,
there was some delay on our part. The Boers therefore picked up their
own wounded, of whom there were a few, gave some of our men a little
water, and took away their rifles. All this was quite correct; but the
Boers then proceeded to strip and despoil the dead and wounded, taking
off their boots and turning out their pockets, and this so infuriated
the watching soldiers behind the wall that they forthwith fired on the
Boers, Red Cross flag notwithstanding. This, of course, was the signal
for fighting to recommence fiercely, and during the day neither side
would hear of parley. The Boers behaved cruelly in various instances,
and several wounded men who tried to crawl away were deliberately
destroyed by being shot at close quarters with many bullets.

During the 24th there was heavy firing on both sides, but no movement of
infantry on either. The army suffered some loss from the Boer artillery,
particularly the automatic guns, which were well served, and which
enfiladed many of our positions on the slopes of the low kopjes. In this
way Colonel Thorold, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and other officers,
met their deaths. The casualties were principally in Hildyard's English
and Kitchener's Lancashire Brigades. Hart's six battalions found good
cover in the gorge of the Tugela.

Sir Redvers Buller now saw that his plan of filing his army round the
angle of the river and across the enemy's front would, in any case, be
very costly, and was perhaps impossible. He, therefore, determined to
get back to the Hlangwani plateau, and try the extreme left of the
enemy's position. He had the strategic advantage of being on interior
lines, and was consequently able to move his troops with great ease from
one flank to the other. His new plan was to pass the brigades of his
left and centre across the pontoon bridge from the left to the right, so
that Hart, who was formerly the extreme right, would now become almost
the extreme left, and, having thus extended his right arm, to cross the
river where it flowed east and west, and make a still wider swoop on the
enemy's flank.

The first thing to do was to move the heavy guns, and this, with certain
redistributions of the cavalry, occupied the whole day. A long-range
four-gun naval battery was established on the western slopes of the
Monte Cristo ridge. Another similar battery was placed on the spurs of
Hlangwani. The 4.7-inch naval guns and the 5 in. fortress battery were
brought into line in the centre of the Hlangwani plateau. All this was
good. The big guns were getting back on to the big hills. The firing,
which continued all day, swelled into a roar towards night as the Boers
made vigorous attempts to drive Hart's Brigade from its lodgments. They
were, however, foiled in their endeavour to squeeze in between the
troops and the river.

The battalions, who were attacked frontally, lay down with fixed
bayonets and prayed that the Boers might be encouraged by their silence
to make an assault. The latter, however, were fully aware of the
eagerness of the soldiers for personal collision, and kept their
distance. The firing on both sides was unaimed, and very little harm was
done. No one, however, had much sleep. The condition of the wounded,
still lying sore and thirsty on the bare hillside, was now so shocking
that Sir Redvers Buller was forced, much against his inclination, at
dawn on the 25th, to send in a flag of truce to the Boer commander and
ask for an armistice. This the Boers formally refused, but agreed that
if we would not fire on their positions during the day they would not
prevent our bearer companies from removing the wounded and burying the
dead.

The arrangement worked well; the enemy were polite to our medical
officers, and by noon all the wounded had been brought down and the dead
buried. The neglect and exposure for forty-eight hours had much
aggravated the case of the former, and the bodies of the dead, swollen,
blackened, and torn by the terrible wounds of the expansive bullets, now
so generally used by the enemy, were ugly things to see. The fact that
no regular armistice was agreed on was an advantage, as we were not
thereby debarred from making military movements. The Boers improved
their entrenchments, and Sir Redvers Buller employed the day in
withdrawing his train across the river. This movement, seeming to
foreshadow another retreat, sorely disquieted the troops, who were only
reassured by the promise of a general onslaught from the other flank at
no distant time.

The strange quiet of this Sunday, the first day since the 14th of the
month unbroken by musketry and cannonade, was terminated at nine
o'clock at night.

The Boers had seen the waggons passing back over the bridge, and were
anxious to find out whether or not the infantry were following, and if
the low kopjes were evacuated. They therefore opened a tremendous
magazine fire at long range on the brigades holding the line from
Colenso village to the angle of the river. The fusillade was returned,
and for ten minutes the musketry was louder than at any other time in
this campaign. Very few casualties occurred, however, and after a while
the Boers, having learned that the positions were still occupied, ceased
firing, and the British soon imitated them, so that, except for the
ceaseless 'sniping,' silence was restored.

At dawn on the 26th the artillery re-opened on both sides, and during
the day a constant bombardment was maintained, in which we, having more
guns, fired the greater number of shells, and the Dutch, having larger
targets, hit a greater number of men. The losses were not, however,
severe, except in view of the fact that they had to be endured by the
infantry idly and passively.

Considerable movements of troops were made. Colenso and the kopjes about
Fort Wylie were converted into a bridgehead, garrisoned by Talbot Coke's
Brigade. A new line of communications was opened around the foot of
Hlangwani. A pontoon bridge (B) was arranged ready to be thrown below
the falls of the river, not far from the still intact Boer bridge.
Hildyard's English Brigade stood fast on the advanced low kopjes forming
the extreme left of the line. Hart's command held its position about the
slopes of Inniskilling Hill and in the gorge of the river. Barton's
Fusilier Brigade, Kitchener's Lancashire Brigade, and the two remaining
battalions of Norcott's (formerly Lyttelton's) Brigade crossed the old
bridge to the Hlangwani plateau.

All was now ready for the final attack on the left of the Pieters
position, and in spite of the high quality of the Infantry it was
generally recognised throughout the army that the fate of Ladysmith
must depend on the success of the next day's operations. The spirit of
the army was still undaunted, but they had suffered much from losses,
exposure, and disappointment.

Since January 11, a period of more than six weeks, the troops had been
continuously fighting and bivouacking. The peaceful intervals of a few
days had merely been in order to replenish stores and ammunition. During
this time the only reinforcements to reach the army had been a few
drafts, a cavalry regiment, a horse battery, and some heavy guns.
Exclusive of the 1,100 casualties suffered at Colenso in December, the
force, rarely more than 20,000 men, had had over 3,500 killed and
wounded, had never had a single gleam of success, and had hardly seen
the enemy who hit them so hard.

Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Krantz, and the third day at Pieters were not
inspiring memories, and though everyone was cheered by the good news of
the entanglement of Cronje's army on the western side, yet it was felt
that the attempt to be made on the morrow would be the last effort the
Natal Field Army would be asked or allowed to make. And oppressed by
these reflections we went anxiously to rest on the eve of Majuba Day.




CHAPTER XXV

UPON MAJUBA DAY


Commandant's Office. Durban: March 6, 1900.

Day broke behind a cloudy sky, and the bang of an early gun reminded us
that a great business was on hand. The bivouac of the Irregular Cavalry,
which, since they had recrossed the river, had been set at the neck
between Monte Cristo and Cingolo, was soon astir. We arose--all had
slept in their boots and had no need to dress--drank some coffee and
rejoiced that the day promised to be cool. It would help the infantry,
and on the infantry all depended.

At half-past six Dundonald's Brigade marched towards the northern end of
the Hlangwani plateau, where we were to take up positions on the spurs
of Monte Cristo and along the bluffs of the south bank of the Tugela,
from which we might assist the infantry attack, and particularly the
attack of Barton's Brigade, by long-range rifle fire, and by our Colt
battery and Maxim guns. While we marched the artillery fire grew more
rapid, as battery after battery joined in the bombardment; and when we
reached the high wooded ridge which we were ordered to line, I could see
our shells bursting merrily in the enemy's trenches.

The position which had been assigned to the South African Light Horse
afforded a close yet extensive view of the whole scene. Deep in its
gorge below our feet flowed the Tugela, with the new pontoon bridge
visible to the left, just below a fine waterfall. Behind us, on a
rounded spur of Monte Cristo, one of the long-range batteries was firing
away busily. Before us, across the river, there rose from the water's
edge first a yellow strip of sandy foreshore, then steep, scrub-covered
banks, and then smooth, brown slopes, terminating in the three hills
which were to be successively assaulted, and which were surmounted by
the dark lines of the Boer forts and trenches.

It was like a stage scene viewed from the dress circle. Moreover, we
were very comfortable. There were large convenient rocks to sit behind
in case of bullets, or to rest a telescope on, and the small trees which
sparsely covered the ridge gave a partial shade from the sun. Opposite
our front a considerable valley, thickly wooded, ran back from the
river, and it was our easy and pleasant task to 'fan' this, as an
American officer would say, by scattering a ceaseless shower of rifle
and machine-gun bullets throughout its length. Under these satisfactory
circumstances I watched the battle.

It developed very slowly, and with the deliberation which characterises
all our manoeuvres. The guns gradually worked themselves into a state of
excitement, and what with our musketry, supplemented by that of the
Border Regiment and the Composite Battalion, whose duties were the same
as ours, and the machine-guns puffing like steam engines, we soon had a
capital loud noise, which I think is a most invigorating element in an
attack. Besides this, the enemy's sharpshooters were curiously subdued.
They found an unexpected amount of random bullets flying about, and, as
they confessed afterwards, it puzzled and disturbed them.

The spectacle of two thousand men firing for half a day at nothing may
provoke the comment 'shocking waste of ammunition.' Very likely there
was waste. But all war is waste, and cartridges are the cheapest item in
the bill. At any rate, we made it too hot for the 'snipers' to show
their heads, which was certainly worth fifty men to the assaulting
brigades. This method of preparing an attack by a great volume of
unaimed--not undirected--rifle fire is worthy of the closest attention.
I have only once before noticed its employment, and that was when Sir
Bindon Blood attacked and took the Tanga Pass. Then, as now, it was most
effective.

While we were thus occupied the Infantry of Barton's Brigade were
marching across the pontoon bridge, turning to their right and filing
along the sandy foreshore. The plan of attack to which Sir Redvers
Buller had finally committed himself was as follows: Hildyard's Brigade
to hold its position on the low kopjes; Barton's Brigade to cross the
new pontoon bridge opposite to the left of the enemy's position, and
assault the hill marked '3' on my diagram, and hereinafter called
Barton's Hill. Next Kitchener's Brigade was to cross, covered by
Barton's fire, to assault the centre hill marked '2,' and called Railway
Hill. Lastly, Norcott's two untouched battalions were to join the rest
of their brigade, and, supported by General Hart's Brigade, to attack
Inniskilling Hill.

In brief, we were to stretch out our right arm, reach round the enemy's
flank, and pivoting on Hildyard's Brigade crumple him from (his) left to
right. It was the same plan as before, only that we now had our right
hand on the Monte Cristo ridge, from which commanding position our
long-range guns could enfilade and even take in reverse some of the
enemy's trenches.

The leading brigade was across the river by nine o'clock, and by ten
had reached its position ready for attacking at the foot of Barton's
Hill. The advance began forthwith and the figures of the Infantry could
be seen swarming up the steep slopes of the river gorge. The Boers did
very little to stop the attack. They knew their weakness. One side of
Barton's Hill was swept and commanded by the guns on Monte Cristo. The
other side, at the back of which was the donga we were 'fanning,' was
raked by the heavy artillery on the Hlangwani spur and by the field
batteries arranged along the south side of the river. Observe the
influence of the Monte Cristo ridge! It made Barton's Hill untenable by
the Boers; and Barton's Hill prepared the way for an attack on Railway
Hill, and Railway Hill--but I must not anticipate. Indeed, next to Monte
Cristo, Barton's Hill was the key of the Boer position, and so
unfortunate was the enemy's situation that he could not hold this
all-important feature once he had lost the Monte Cristo ridge.

What was tactically possible and safe--for the Boer is a cautious
warrior--was done. Knowing that his left would be turned he extended a
sort of false left in the air beyond the end of the Monte Cristo ridge,
and here he brought a gun into action, which worried us among other
people but did not, of course, prevent any military movement.

By noon the whole of Barton's Hill was in the possession of his brigade,
without, as it seemed to us, any serious opposition. The artillery then
turned its attention to the other objectives of the attack. The Boer
detached left was, however, of considerable strength, and as soon as
Barton had occupied this hill (which proved, moreover, far more
extensive than had been expected), he was heavily attacked by rifle fire
from its under features and from a network of dongas to the eastward,
and as the Artillery were busy preparing the attack on Railway Hill, the
brigade, particularly the Scots and Irish Fusiliers, soon became
severely engaged and suffered grievous loss.

The fact that Barton's Hill was in our possession made the Boers on
Railway and Inniskilling Hills very insecure. A powerful Infantry force
was holding the left of their position, and though it was itself being
actively attacked on the eastern face, it could spare at least a
battalion to assail their flank and threaten their rear. Covered by this
flanking fire, by the long-range musketry, and by a tremendous
bombardment, in which every gun, from the lumbering 5 in. siege guns to
the little 9-pounder mountain battery, joined, the main attack was now
launched. It proceeded simultaneously against Railway Hill, Inniskilling
Hill, and the neck between them, but as the general line was placed
obliquely across the Boer front, the attack fell first on Railway Hill
and the neck.

The right battalions drew up in many long lines on the sides of the
river gorge. Then men began gradually to work their way upwards, until
all the dead patches of ground and every scrap of cover sheltered a
fierce little group. Behind the railway embankment, among the rocks, in
the scrub, in a cutting, near a ruined house, clusters of men eagerly
awaited the decisive moment: and all this time more than seventy guns
concentrated their fire on the entrenchments, scattering the stones and
earth high in the air. Then, suddenly, shortly after four o'clock, all
further attempts at advancing under cover were abandoned, and the
Lancashire Brigade marched proudly into the open ground and on the
enemy's works. The Mauser musketry burst forth at once, and the bullets,
humming through the assaulting waves of infantry, reached us on our
hillside and wounded a trooper in spite of the distance. But, bullets or
no bullets, we could not take our eyes off the scene.

The Lancashire Brigade advanced on a wide front. Norcott's Riflemen were
already prolonging their line to the right. The Boer fire was dispersed
along the whole front of attack, instead of converging on one narrow
column. The assault was going to succeed. We stood up on our rocks.
Bayonets began to glitter on the distant slope. The moving lines
increased their pace. The heads of the Boers bobbing up and down in
their trenches grew fewer and fewer. They knew the tide was running too
strongly. Death and flight were thinning their ranks. Then the sky-line
of Railway Hill bristled with men, who dropped on their knees forthwith
and fired in particular haste at something that was running away down
the other side. There was the sound of cheering. Railway Hill was ours.
I looked to the left.

The neck between the hills was lined with trenches. The South Lancashire
Regiment had halted, pinned to the ground by the Boer fire. Were they
going to lose the day for us when it was already won? The question was
soon answered. In an instant there appeared on the left of the Boer
trench a dozen--only a dozen--violent forms rushing forward. A small
party had worked their way to the flank, and were at close quarters with
cold steel. And then--by contrast to their former courage--the valiant
burghers fled in all directions, and others held out their rifles and
bandoliers and begged for mercy, which was sometimes generously given,
so that by the time the whole attack had charged forward into the
trenches there was a nice string of thirty-two prisoners winding down
the hill: at which token of certain victory we shouted loudly.

Inniskilling Hill alone remained, and that was almost in our hands. Its
slopes were on three sides alive with the active figures of the Light
Brigade, and the bayonets sparkled. The hill ran into a peak. Many of
the trenches were already deserted, but the stone breastwork at the
summit still contained defenders. There, painted against the evening
sky, were the slouch hats and moving rifles. Shell after shell exploded
among them: overhead, in their faces, in the trench itself, behind them,
before them, around them. Sometimes five and six shells were bursting on
the very apex at the same instant. Showers of rock and splinters fell on
all sides.

Yet they held their ground and stayed in greater peril than was ever
mortal man before. But the infantry were drawing very near. At last the
Dutchmen fled. One, a huge fellow in a brown jersey, tarried to spring
on the parapet and empty his magazine once more into the approaching
ranks, and while he did so a 50 lb. lyddite shell burst, as it seemed,
in the midst of him, and the last defender of Inniskilling Hill
vanished.

Then the artillery put up their sights and began to throw their shells
over the crest of hill and ridge, so that they might overtake fugitives.
The valleys behind fumed and stewed. Wreaths of dust and smoke curled
upward. The infantry crowned the trenches all along the line, some
firing their rifles at the flying enemy, others beckoning to nearer folk
to surrender, and they all cheered in the triumph of successful attack
till the glorious sound came down to us who watched, so that the whole
army took up the shout, and all men knew that the battle of Pieters was
won.

Forthwith came orders for the cavalry to cross the river, and we mounted
in high expectation, knowing that behind the captured hill lay an open
plain stretching almost to the foot of Bulwana. We galloped swiftly down
to the pontoon bridge, and were about to pass over it, when the
General-in-Chief met us. He had ridden to the other bank to see for
himself and us. The Boer artillery were firing heavily to cover the
retreat of their riflemen. He would not allow us to go across that night
lest we should lose heavily in horses. So the brigade returned
disappointed to its former position, watered horses, and selected a
bivouac. I was sent to warn the Naval Battery that a heavy
counter-stroke would probably be made on the right of Barton's Brigade
during the night, and, climbing the spur of Monte Cristo, on which the
guns were placed, had a commanding view of the field.

In the gathering darkness the Boer artillery, invisible all day, was
betrayed by its flashes. Two 'pom-poms' flickered away steadily from the
direction of Doorn Kloof, making a regular succession of small bright
flame points. Two more guns were firing from the hills to our left.
Another was in action far away on our right. There may have been more,
but even so it was not much artillery to oppose our eleven batteries.
But it is almost an open question whether it is better to have many guns
to shoot at very little, or few guns to shoot at a great deal; hundreds
of shells tearing up the ground or a dozen plunging into masses of men.
Personally, I am convinced that future warfare will be to the few, by
which I mean that to escape annihilation soldiers will have to fight in
widely dispersed formations, when they will have to think for
themselves, and when each must be to a great extent his own general; and
with regard to artillery, it appears that the advantages of defensive
action, range, concealment, and individual initiative may easily
counterbalance numbers and discipline. The night fell upon these
reflections, and I hastened to rejoin the cavalry.

On the way I passed through Sir Charles Warren's camp, and there found a
gang of prisoners--forty-eight of them--all in a row almost the same
number that the Boers had taken in the armoured train. Looking at these
very ordinary people, who grinned and chattered without dignity, and who
might, from their appearance, have been a knot of loafers round a
public-house, it was difficult to understand what qualities made them
such a terrible foe.

'Only forty-eight, sir,' said a private soldier, who was guarding them,
'and there wouldn't have been so many as that if the orfcers hadn't
stopped us from giving them the bayonet. I never saw such cowards in my
life; shoot at you till you come up to them, and then beg for mercy. I'd
teach 'em.' With which remark he turned to the prisoners, who had just
been issued rations of beef and biscuit, but who were also very thirsty,
and began giving them water to drink from his own canteen, and so left
me wondering at the opposite and contradictory sides of human nature as
shown by Briton as well as Boer.

We got neither food nor blankets that night, and slept in our
waterproofs on the ground; but we had at last that which was better
than feast or couch, for which we had hungered and longed through many
weary weeks, which had been thrice forbidden us, and which was all the
more splendid since it had been so long delayed--Victory.

[Illustration: Map of the Operations of the Natal Field Army
February 14th to 28th.]


CHAPTER XXVI

THE RELIEF OF LADYSMITH


Commandant's Office, Durban: March 9, 1900.

The successful action of the 27th had given Sir Redvers Buller
possession of the whole of the left and centre of the Pieters position,
and in consequence of these large sections of their entrenchments having
fallen into British hands, the Boers evacuated the remainder and
retreated westward on to the high hills and northward towards Bulwana
Mountain.

About ninety prisoners were captured in the assault, and more than a
hundred bodies were counted in the trenches. After making allowances for
the fact that these men were for the most part killed by shell fire, and
that therefore the proportion of killed to wounded would necessarily be
higher than if the loss were caused by bullets, it seems probable that
no less than three hundred wounded were removed. Forty were collected by
British ambulance parties. Of the Boers who were killed in the retreat
no accurate estimate can be formed, but the dongas and kopjes beyond the
position were strewn with occasional corpses. Undoubtedly the enemy was
hard hit in personnel, and the fact that we had taken two miles of
entrenchments as well as considerable stores of ammunition proved that a
very definite and substantial success had been won.

But we were not prepared for the complete results that followed the
operations of the 27th. Neither the General nor his army expected to
enter Ladysmith without another action. Before us a smooth plain,
apparently unobstructed, ran to the foot of Bulwana, but from this
forbidding eminence a line of ridges and kopjes was drawn to the high
hills of Doorn Kloof, and seemed to interpose another serious barrier.
It was true that this last position was within range, or almost within
range, of Sir George White's guns, so that its defenders might be
caught between two fires, but we knew, and thought the Boers knew, that
the Ladysmith garrison was too feeble from want of food and other
privations to count for very much. So Sir Redvers Buller, facing the
least satisfactory assumption, determined to rest his army on the 28th,
and attack Bulwana Hill on March 1.

He accordingly sent a message by heliograph into Ladysmith to say that
he had beaten the enemy thoroughly, and was sending on his cavalry to
reconnoitre. Ladysmith had informed herself, however, of the state of
the game. Captain Tilney, from his balloon, observed all that passed in
the enemy's lines on the morning of the 28th. At first, when he heard no
artillery fire, he was depressed, and feared lest the relieving army had
retreated again. Then, as it became day, he was sure that this was not
so, for the infantry in crowds were occupying the Boer position, and the
mounted patrols pricked forward into the plain. Presently he saw the
Boers rounding up their cattle and driving them off to the north. Next
they caught and began to saddle their horses. The great white tilted
waggons of the various laagers filed along the road around the eastern
end of Bulwana. Lastly, up went a pair of shears over 'Long Tom,' and at
this he descended to the earth with the good news that the enemy were
off at last.

The garrison, however, had been mocked by false hopes before, and all
steeled themselves to wait 'at least another ten days.'

Meanwhile, since there was no fire from the enemy's side, our cavalry
and artillery were rapidly and safely crossing the river. There was a
considerable block at the bridge when the South African Light Horse
arrived, and we had full leisure to examine the traffic. Guns, men,
horses, and mules were hurrying across to the northern bank, and an
opposing stream of wounded flowed steadily back to the south. I watched
these with interest.

First came a young officer riding a pony and smoking a cigarette, but
very pale and with his left arm covered with bloody bandages. Brooke
greeted him and asked, 'Bone ?' 'Yes,' replied the subaltern
laconically, 'shoulder smashed up.' We expressed our sympathy. 'Oh,
that's all right; good show, wasn't it? The men are awfully pleased;'
and he rode slowly on up the hill--the type of an unyielding race--and
stoical besides; for wounds, especially shattered bones, grow painful
after twelve or fourteen hours. A string of wounded passed by on
stretchers, some lying quite still, others sitting up and looking about
them; one, also an officer, a dark, black-moustached captain, whose eyes
were covered with a bandage, kept his bearers busy with continual
impatient questions. 'Yes, but what I want to know is this, did they get
into them with the bayonet?' The volunteer stretcher-bearers could make
no satisfactory reply, but said, 'Yes, they give 'em 'ell, sir.' 'Where,
on the left of Railway Hill?' 'Oh, everywhere, sir.' The group passed
by, and the last thing I heard was, 'How much of the artillery has
crossed? Are they sending the cavalry over? What the ...'

Presently came stretchers with wounded Boers. Most of these poor
creatures were fearfully shattered. One tall man with a great fierce
beard and fine features had a fragment of rock or iron driven through
his liver. He was, moreover, stained bright yellow with lyddite, but did
not seem in much pain, for he looked very calm and stolid. The less
seriously injured among the soldiers hobbled back alone or assisted by
their comrades.

I asked a smart-looking sergeant of the Dublin Fusiliers, who was
limping along with a broken foot, whether the regiment had been again
heavily engaged. Of course they had.

'Sure, we're always in the thick of it, sorr. Mr. ---- was hit; no, not
badly; only his wrist, but there's not many of the officers left; only
two now who were at Talana.'

At last the time came for the cavalry to cross the bridge, and as we
filed on to the floating roadway we were amused to see a large
fingerpost at the entrance, on which the engineers had neatly painted,
'To Ladysmith.' The brigade passed over the neck between Railway and
Inniskilling Hills, and we massed in a suitable place on the descending
slopes beyond. We looked at the country before us, and saw that it was
good. Here at last was ground cavalry could work on at some speed.
Ladysmith was still hidden by the remaining ridges, but we thought that
somehow, and with a little luck, we might have a look at it before
night.

Under Bulwana the waggons of the Boers and several hundred horsemen
could be seen hurrying away. It was clearly our business to try to
intercept them unless they had made good covering dispositions. Patrols
were sent out in all directions, and a squadron of Thorneycroft's
Mounted Infantry proceeded to Pieters Station, where a complete train of
about twenty trucks had been abandoned by the enemy. While this
reconnaissance was going on I climbed up Inniskilling Hill to examine
the trenches. It was occupied by the East Surrey Regiment, and the
soldiers were very eager to do the honours. They had several things to
show: 'Come along here, sir; there's a bloke here without a head; took
clean off, sir;' and were mightily disappointed that I would not let
them remove the blanket which covered the grisly shape.

The trench was cut deep in the ground, and, unlike our trenches, there
was scarcely any parapet. A few great stones had been laid in front, but
evidently the Boer believed in getting well into the ground. The bottom
was knee deep in cartridge cases, and every few yards there was an
enormous heap of Mauser ammunition, thousands of rounds, all fastened
neatly, five at a time, in clips. A large proportion were covered with
bright green slime, which the soldiers declared was poison, but which on
analysis may prove to be wax, used to preserve the bullet.

The Boers, however, were not so guiltless of other charges. A field
officer of the East Surreys, recognising me, came up and showed me an
expansive bullet of a particularly cruel pattern. The tip had been cut
off, exposing the soft core, and four slits were scored down the side.
Whole boxes of this ammunition had been found. An officer who had been
making calculations told me that the proportion of illegal bullets was
nearly one in five. I should not myself have thought it was so large,
but certainly the improper bullets were very numerous. I have a specimen
of this particular kind by me as I write, and I am informed by people
who shoot big game that it is the most severe bullet of its kind yet
invented. Five other sorts have been collected by the medical officers,
who have also tried to classify the wounds they respectively produce.

I cannot be accused of having written unfairly about the enemy; indeed,
I have only cared to write what I thought was the truth about everybody.
I have tried to do justice to the patriotic virtues of the Boers, and it
is now necessary to observe that the character of these people reveals,
in stress, a dark and spiteful underside. A man--I use the word in its
fullest sense--does not wish to lacerate his foe, however earnestly he
may desire his life.

The popping of musketry made me hasten to rejoin my regiment. The
squadron of mounted infantry had reached Pieters Railway Station, only
to be heavily fired on from a low hill to the westward; and they now
came scampering back with half a dozen riderless horses. Happily, the
riders mostly arrived on foot after a few minutes. But it was evidently
necessary to push forward very carefully. Indeed, it is hard to imagine
how pursuits will occur in future war. A hundred bold men with magazine
rifles on a ridge can delay a whole army. The cavalry must reconnoitre
and retire. Infantry and guns must push forward. Meanwhile the beaten
troops are moving steadily to safety.

In a little while--to revert to the narrative--the horse artillery
battery came up, and the offending hill was conscientiously shelled for
an hour. Then the patrols crept forward again, but progress was
necessarily slow. We were still six miles from Ladysmith at three
o'clock.

At this hour the Boer ambulances had been invited to come for such of
their wounded as could be moved, for since the enemy returned our
wounded from Spion Kop we have followed the practice of sending back
theirs on all occasions should they prefer it.

Anxious to find out the impression produced on the Boers by the late
actions, I hastened to meet the ambulances, which, preceded by three
horsemen carrying a large white flag, were now coming from the direction
of Bulwana. They were stopped at our cavalry picket line, and a report
of their arrival was sent back to the nearest brigadier. Their leader
was a fine old fellow of the genuine veldt Boer type. He spoke English
fluently, and we were soon in conversation.

Cronje's surrender had been officially announced to us on the previous
day, and I inquired whether he had heard of it. He replied that he knew
Cronje was in difficulties, but understood he had managed to escape with
his army. As for the surrender, it might be true or it might be false.
'We are told so many lies that we believe nothing.'

But his next remark showed that he realised that the tide had begun to
turn. 'I don't know what we poor Afrikanders have done that England
won't let us be a nation.' I would have replied that I remembered having
heard something about 'driving the English into the sea,' but I have
been over this ground before in every sense, and knew the futility of
any discussion. Indeed, when the debate is being conducted with shells,
bullets, and bayonets, words are feeble weapons. So I said with an irony
which was quite lost on him, 'It must be all those damned capitalists,'
and this, of course, won his complete agreement, so that he confided
that losing the position we had taken on the 27th was 'a sore and bitter
blow.'

It happened that two squadrons of the 13th Hussars had ridden forward
beyond us towards Bulwana, and at this moment the Boer artillery began
to shell them rather heavily. We watched the proceedings for a few
minutes, and the Boer was much astonished to see soldiers riding
leisurely forward in regular though open order without paying the
slightest attention to the shrapnel. Then several more squadrons were
ordered to support the reconnaissance. A great company of horsemen
jingled past the halted ambulances and cantered off in the direction of
the firing. My companion regarded these steadfastly, then he said:

'Why do they all look so pleased?'

'Because they think they are going to fight; but they will not be
allowed to. It is only desired to draw your fire and reconnoitre.'

The whole plain was now occupied by cavalry, both brigades being on the
move.

'Little did we think a week ago,' said the Boer, 'that we should see
such a sight as this, here in this plain.'

'Didn't you think we should get through?'

'No, we didn't believe it possible.'

'And you find the soldiers brave?'

'They do not care for life.'

'And Ladysmith?'

'Ah,' his eye brightened, 'there's pluck, if you like. Wonderful!'

Then we agreed that it was a sad and terrible war, and whoever won we
would make the gold mines pay, so that 'the damned capitalists' should
not think they had scored, and thus we parted.

I afterwards learned that the Boer ambulances removed twenty-seven of
their wounded. The condition of the others was too serious to allow of
their being moved, and in spite of every attention they all died while
in our hands.

When I rejoined the South African Light Horse the Irregular Brigade had
begun to advance again. Major Gough's Composite Regiment had scouted the
distant ridge and found it unoccupied. Now Dundonald moved his whole
command thither, and with his staff climbed to the top. But to our
disappointment Ladysmith was not to be seen. Two or three other ridges
hung like curtains before us. The afternoon had passed, and it was
already after six o'clock. The Boer artillery was still firing, and it
seemed rash to attempt to reconnoitre further when the ground was broken
and the light fading.

The order was given to retire and the movement had actually begun when
a messenger came back from Gough with the news that the last ridge
between us and the town was unoccupied by the enemy, that he could see
Ladysmith, and that there was, for the moment, a clear run in. Dundonald
immediately determined to go on himself into the town with the two
squadrons who were scouting in front, and to send the rest of the
brigade back to camp. He invited me to accompany him, and without delay
we started at a gallop.

Never shall I forget that ride. The evening was deliciously cool. My
horse was strong and fresh, for I had changed him at midday. The ground
was rough with many stones, but we cared little for that. Beyond the
next ridge, or the rise beyond that, or around the corner of the hill,
was Ladysmith--the goal of all our hopes and ambitions during weeks of
almost ceaseless fighting. Ladysmith--the centre of the world's
attention, the scene of famous deeds, the cause of mighty
efforts--Ladysmith was within our reach at last. We were going to be
inside the town within an hour. The excitement of the moment was
increased by the exhilaration of the gallop. Onward wildly, recklessly,
up and down hill, over the boulders, through the scrub, Hubert Gough
with his two squadrons, Mackenzie's Natal Carabineers and the Imperial
Light Horse, were clear of the ridges already. We turned the shoulder of
a hill, and there before us lay the tin houses and dark trees we had
come so far to see and save.

The British guns on Caesar's Camp were firing steadily in spite of the
twilight. What was happening? Never mind, we were nearly through the
dangerous ground. Now we were all on the flat. Brigadier, staff, and
troops let their horses go. We raced through the thorn bushes by Intombi
Spruit.

Suddenly there was a challenge. 'Halt, who goes there?' 'The Ladysmith
Relief Column,' and thereat from out of trenches and rifle pits artfully
concealed in the scrub a score of tattered men came running, cheering
feebly, and some were crying. In the half light they looked ghastly pale
and thin. A poor, white-faced officer waved his helmet to and fro, and
laughed foolishly, and the tall, strong colonial horsemen, standing up
in their stirrups, raised a loud resounding cheer, for then we knew we
had reached the Ladysmith picket line.

Presently we arranged ourselves in military order, Natal Carabineers and
Imperial Light Horse riding two and two abreast so that there might be
no question about precedence, and with Gough, the youngest regimental
commander in the army, and one of the best, at the head of the column,
we forded the Klip River and rode into the town.

That night I dined with Sir George White, who had held the town for four
months against all comers, and was placed next to Hamilton, who won the
fight at Elandslaagte and beat the Boers off Waggon Hill, and next but
one to Hunter, whom everyone said was the finest man in the vorld. Never
before had I sat in such brave company nor stood so close to a great
event. As the war drives slowly to its close more substantial triumphs,
larger battles, wherein the enemy suffers heavier loss, the capture of
towns, and the surrender of armies may mark its progress. But whatever
victories the future may have in store, the defence and relief of
Ladysmith, because they afford, perhaps, the most remarkable examples of
national tenacity and perseverance which our later history contains,
will not be soon forgotten by the British people, whether at home or in
the Colonies.




CHAPTER XXVII

AFTER THE SIEGE


Durban: March 10, 1900.

Since the road by which Dundonald's squadrons had entered the town was
never again closed by the enemy, the siege of Ladysmith may be said to
have ended on the last day of February. During the night the heavy guns
fired at intervals, using up the carefully husbanded ammunition in order
to prevent the Boers from removing their artillery.

On March 1 the garrison reverted to a full half-ration of biscuits and
horseflesh, and an attempt was made to harass the Boers, who were in
full retreat towards the Biggarsberg. Sir George White had made careful
inquiries among the regiments for men who would undertake to walk five
miles and fight at the end of the march. But so reduced were the
soldiers through want of food that, though many volunteered, only two
thousand men were considered fit out of the whole garrison. These were,
however, formed into a column, under Colonel Knox, consisting of two
batteries of artillery, two squadrons of the 19th Hussars and 5th
Lancers, 'all that was left of them,' with horses, and detachments, each
about two hundred and fifty strong, from the Manchester, Liverpool, and
Devon Regiments, the 60th Rifles, and the Gordon Highlanders, and this
force moved out of Ladysmith at dawn on the 1st to attack the Boers on
Pepworth's Hill, in the hope of interfering with their entrainment at
Modderspruit Station.

The Dutch, however, had left a rear guard sufficient to hold in check so
small a force, and it was 2 o'clock before Pepworth's Hill was occupied.
The batteries then shelled Modderspruit Station, and very nearly caught
three crowded trains, which just managed to steam out of range in time.
The whole force of men and horses was by this time quite exhausted. The
men could scarcely carry their rifles. In the squadron of 19th Hussars
nine horses out of sixty fell down and died, and Colonel Knox therefore
ordered the withdrawal into the town.

Only about a dozen men were killed or wounded in this affair, but the
fact that the garrison was capable of making any offensive movement
after their privations is a manifest proof of their soldierly spirit and
excellent discipline.

On the same morning Sir Redvers Buller advanced on Bulwana Hill. Down
from the commanding positions which they had won by their courage and
endurance marched the incomparable infantry, and by 2 o'clock the plain
of Pieters was thickly occupied by successive lines of men in extended
order, with long columns of guns and transport trailing behind them.
Shortly before noon it was ascertained that Bulwana Hill was abandoned
by the enemy, and the army was thereon ordered to camp in the plain, no
further fighting being necessary.

The failure to pursue the retreating Boers when two fine cavalry
brigades were standing idle and eager must be noticed. It is probable
that the Boer rearguard would have been sufficiently strong to require
both infantry and guns to drive it back. It is certain that sharp
fighting must have attended the effort. Nevertheless the opinion
generally expressed was that it should have been made. My personal
impression is that Sir Redvers Buller was deeply moved by the heavy
losses the troops had suffered, and was reluctant to demand further
sacrifices from them at this time. Indeed, the price of victory had been
a high one.

In the fortnight's fighting, from February 14 to February 28, two
generals, six colonels commanding regiments, a hundred and five other
officers, and one thousand five hundred and eleven soldiers had been
killed or wounded out of an engaged force of about eighteen thousand
men; a proportion of slightly under 10 per cent.

In the whole series of operations for the relief of Ladysmith the losses
amounted to three hundred officers and more than five thousand men, out
of a total engaged force of about twenty-three thousand, a proportion
of rather more than 20 per cent. Nor had this loss been inflicted in a
single day's victorious battle, but was spread over twenty-five days of
general action in a period of ten weeks; and until the last week no
decided success had cheered the troops.

The stress of the campaign, moreover, had fallen with peculiar force on
certain regiments: the Lancashire Fusiliers sustained losses of over 35
per cent., the Inniskillings of 40 per cent., and the Dublin Fusiliers
of over 60 per cent. It was very remarkable that the fighting efficiency
of these regiments was in no way impaired by such serious reductions.
The casualties among the officers maintained their usual glorious
disproportion, six or seven regiments in the army having less than eight
officers left alive and unwounded. Among the cavalry the heaviest losses
occurred in Dundonald's Brigade, the South African Light Horse,
Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, and the squadron of Imperial Light
Horse, each losing a little less than a quarter of their strength.

The ceaseless marching and fighting had worn out the clothes and boots
of the army, and a certain number of the guns of the field artillery
were unserviceable through constant firing. The troops, besides clothes,
needed fresh meat, an exclusive diet of tinned food being unwholesome if
unduly prolonged. Sir Redvers Buller's estimate that a week's rest was
needed does not seem excessive by the light of such facts, but still one
more effort might have saved much trouble later on. On March 3 the
relieving army made its triumphal entry into Ladysmith, and passing
through the town camped on the plain beyond. The scene was solemn and
stirring, and only the most phlegmatic were able to conceal their
emotions. The streets were lined with the brave defenders, looking very
smart and clean in their best clothes, but pale, thin, and
wasp-waisted--their belts several holes tighter than was satisfactory.

Before the little Town Hall, the tower of which, sorely battered, yet
unyielding, seemed to symbolise the spirit of the garrison, Sir George
White and his staff sat on their skeleton horses. Opposite to them were
drawn up the pipers of the Gordon Highlanders. The townsfolk,
hollow-eyed but jubilant, crowded the pavement and the windows of the
houses. Everyone who could find a flag had hung it out, but we needed no
bright colours to raise our spirits.

At eleven o'clock precisely the relieving army began to march into the
town. First of all rode Sir Redvers Buller with his headquarters staff
and an escort of the Royal Dragoons. The infantry and artillery followed
by brigades, but in front of all, as a special recognition of their
devoted valour, marched the Dublin Fusiliers, few, but proud.

Many of the soldiers, remembering their emerald island, had fastened
sprigs of green to their helmets, and all marched with a swing that was
wonderful to watch. Their Colonel and their four officers looked as
happy as kings are thought to be. As the regiments passed Sir George
White, the men recognised their former general, and, disdaining the
rules of the service, waved their helmets and rifles, and cheered him
with intense enthusiasm. Some even broke from the ranks. Seeing this the
Gordon Highlanders began to cheer the Dublins, and after that the noise
of cheering was continual, every regiment as it passed giving and
receiving fresh ovations.

All through the morning and on into the afternoon the long stream of men
and guns flowed through the streets of Ladysmith, and all marvelled to
see what manner of men these were--dirty, war-worn, travel-stained,
tanned, their uniforms in tatters, their boots falling to pieces, their
helmets dinted and broken, but nevertheless magnificent soldiers,
striding along, deep-chested and broad-shouldered, with the light of
triumph in their eyes and the blood of fighting ancestors in their
veins. It was a procession of lions. And presently, when the two
battalions of Devons met--both full of honours--and old friends breaking
from the ranks gripped each other's hands and shouted, everyone was
carried away, and I waved my feathered hat, and cheered and cheered
until I could cheer no longer for joy that I had lived to see the day.

At length all was over. The last dust-brown battalion had passed away
and the roadway was again clear. Yet the ceremony was incomplete. Before
the staff could ride away the Mayor of Ladysmith advanced and requested
Sir George White to receive an address which the townspeople had
prepared and were anxious to present to him. The General dismounted from
his horse, and standing on the steps of the Town Hall, in the midst of
the inhabitants whom he had ruled so rigorously during the hard months
of the siege, listened while their Town Clerk read their earnest
grateful thanks to him for saving their town from the hands of the
enemy. The General replied briefly, complimented them on their behaviour
during the siege, thanked them for the way in which they had borne their
many hardships and submitted to the severe restrictions which the
circumstances of war had brought on them, and rejoiced with them that
they had been enabled by their devotion and by the bravery of the
soldiers to keep the Queen's flag flying over Ladysmith. And then
everybody cheered everybody else, and so, very tired and very happy, we
all went home to our belated luncheons.

Walking through the streets it was difficult to see many signs of the
bombardment. The tower of the Town Hall was smashed and chipped, several
houses showed large holes in their walls, and heaps of broken brickwork
lay here and there. But on the whole the impression produced was one of
surprise that the Boers had done so little damage with the sixteen
thousand shells they had fired during the siege.

On entering the houses, however, the effect was more apparent. In one
the floor was ripped up, in another the daylight gleamed through the
corrugated iron roof, and in some houses the inner walls had been
completely destroyed, and only heaps of rubbish lay on the floor.

The fortifications which the troops had built, though of a very strong
and effective character, were neither imposing nor conspicuous; indeed,
being composed of heaps of stone they were visible only as dark lines on
the rugged kopjes, and if the fame of the town were to depend on relics
of the war it would not long survive the siege.

But memories dwell among the tin houses and on the stony hills that will
keep the name of Ladysmith fresh and full of meaning in the hearts of
our countrymen. Every trench, every mound has its own tale to tell, some
of them sad, but not one shameful. Here and there, scattered through the
scrub by the river or on the hills of red stones almost red hot in the
sun blaze, rise the wooden crosses which mark the graves of British
soldiers. Near the iron bridge a considerable granite pyramid records
the spot where Dick Cunyngham, colonel of the Gordons--what prouder
office could a man hold?--fell mortally wounded on the 6th of January.
Another monument is being built on Waggon Hill to commemorate the brave
men of the Imperial Light Horse who lost their lives but saved the day.
The place is also marked where the noble Ava fell.

But there was one who found, to use his own words, 'a strange sideway
out of Ladysmith,' whose memory many English-speaking people will
preserve. I do not write of Steevens as a journalist, nor as the master
of a popular and pleasing style, but as a man. I knew him, though I had
met him rarely. A dinner up the Nile, a chance meeting at an Indian
junction, five days on a Mediterranean steamer, two in a Continental
express, and a long Sunday at his house near Merton--it was a scanty
acquaintance, but sufficient to be quite certain that in all the varied
circumstances and conditions to which men are subjected Steevens rang
true. Modest yet proud, wise as well as witty, cynical but above all
things sincere, he combined the characters of a charming companion and a
good comrade.

His conversation and his private letters sparkled like his books and
articles. Original expressions, just similitudes, striking phrases,
quaint or droll ideas welled in his mind without the slightest effort.
He was always at his best. I have never met a man who talked so well,
so easily. His wit was the genuine article--absolutely natural and
spontaneous.

I once heard him describe an incident in the Nile campaign, and the
description amused me so much that I was impatient to hear it again, and
when a suitable occasion offered I asked him to tell his tale to the
others. But he told it quite differently, and left me wondering which
version was the better. He could not repeat himself if he tried, whereas
most of the renowned talkers I have met will go over the old impression
with the certainty of a phonograph.

But enough of his words. He was not a soldier, but he walked into the
Atbara zareba with the leading company of the Seaforth Highlanders. He
wrote a vivid account of the attack, but there was nothing in it about
himself.

When the investment of Ladysmith shut the door on soldiers, townspeople,
and War Correspondents alike, Steevens set to work to do his share of
keeping up the good spirits of the garrison and of relieving the
monotony of the long days. Through the first three months of the siege
no local event was awaited with more interest than the publication of a
'Ladysmith Lyre,' and the weary defenders had many a good laugh at its
witticisms.

Sun, stink, and sickness harassed the beleaguered. The bombardment was
perpetual, the relief always delayed; hope again and again deferred. But
nothing daunted Steevens, depressed his courage, or curbed his wit. What
such a man is worth in gloomy days those may appreciate who have seen
the effect of public misfortunes on a modern community.

At last he was himself stricken down by enteric fever. When it seemed
that the worst was over there came a fatal relapse, and the brightest
Intellect yet sacrificed by this war perished; nor among all the
stubborn garrison of Ladysmith was there a stouter heart or a more
enduring spirit.

Dismal scenes were to be found at the hospital camp by Intombi Spruit.
Here, in a town of white tents, under the shadow of Bulwana, were
collected upwards of two thousand sick and wounded--a fifth of the
entire garrison. They were spared the shells, but exposed to all the
privations of the siege.

Officers and men, doctors and patients, presented alike a most
melancholy and even ghastly appearance. Men had been wounded, had been
cured of their wounds, and had died simply because there was no
nourishing food to restore their strength. Others had become
convalescent from fever, but had succumbed from depression and lack of
medical comforts. Hundreds required milk and brandy, but there was only
water to give them. The weak died: at one time the death rate averaged
fifteen a day. Nearly a tenth of the whole garrison died of disease. A
forest of crosses, marking the graves of six hundred men, sprang up
behind the camp.

It was a painful thing to watch the hungry patients, so haggard and worn
that their friends could scarcely recognise them; and after a visit to
Intombi I sat and gloated for an hour at the long train of waggons
filled with all kinds of necessary comforts which crawled along the
roads, and the relief of Ladysmith seemed more than ever worth the heavy
price we had paid.

On the evening after Buller's victorious army had entered the town I
went to see Sir George White, and was so fortunate as to find him alone
and disengaged. The General received me in a room the windows of which
gave a wide view of the defences. Bulwana, Caesar's Camp, Waggon Hill
lay before us, and beneath--for the house stood on high ground--spread
the blue roofs of Ladysmith. From the conversation that followed, and
from my own knowledge of events, I shall endeavour to explain so far as
is at present possible the course of the campaign in Natal; and I will
ask the reader to observe that only the remarks actually quoted should
be attributed to the various officers.

Sir George White told me how he had reached Natal less than a week
before the declaration of war. He found certain arrangements in progress
to meet a swiftly approaching emergency, and he had to choose between
upsetting all these plans and entirely reconstructing the scheme of
defence, or of accepting what was already done as the groundwork of his
operations.

Sir Penn Symons, who had been commanding in the Colony, and who was
presumably best qualified to form an opinion on the military
necessities, extravagantly underrated the Boer fighting power. Some of
his calculations of the force necessary to hold various places seem
incredible in the light of recent events. But everyone was wrong about
the Boers, and the more they knew the worse they erred. Symons laughed
at the Boer military strength, and laboured to impress his opinions on
Sir George White, who having Hamilton's South African experience to fall
back on, however, took a much more serious view of the situation, and
was particularly disturbed at the advanced position of the troops at
Dundee. He wanted to withdraw them. Symons urged the opposite
considerations vehemently. He was a man of great personal force, and his
manner carried people with him. 'Besides,' said the General, with a
kindling eye and extraordinary emphasis, 'he was a good, brave fighting
man, and you know how much that is worth in war.'

In spite of Symons's confidence and enthusiasm White hated to leave
troops at Dundee, and Sir Archibald Hunter, his chief of staff, agreed
with him. But not to occupy a place is one thing: to abandon it after it
has been occupied another.

They decided to ask Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson what consequences would
in his opinion follow a withdrawal. They visited him at ten o'clock at
night, and put the question straightly. Thus appealed to, the Governor
declared that in that event 'loyalists' would be disgusted and
discouraged; the results as regards the Dutch would be grave, many, if
not most, would very likely rise, believing us to be afraid ... and the
effect on the natives, of whom there are some 750,000 in Natal and
Zululand, might be disastrous.'

On hearing this opinion expressed by a man of the Governor's ability and
local knowledge, Sir Archibald Hunter said that it was a question 'of
balancing drawbacks,' and advised that the troops be retained at
Glencoe. So the matter was clinched, 'and,' said Sir George, 'when I
made up my mind to let Symons stay I shared and shared alike with him in
the matter of troops, giving him three batteries, a regiment, and an
infantry brigade, and keeping the same myself.'

For his share in this discussion the Governor was at one time subjected
to a considerable volume of abuse in the public Press, it being charged
against him that he had 'interfered' with the military arrangements.

Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, with whom I have had many pleasant talks,
makes this invariable reply: 'I never said a word to Sir George White
until I was asked. When my opinion was called for I gave it according to
the best of my judgment.'

In the actual event Dundee had to be abandoned, nor was this a
deliberate evacuation arising out of any regular military policy, but a
swift retreat without stores or wounded, compelled by the force of the
enemy.

It is, therefore, worth while considering how far the Governor's
judgment had been vindicated by events. Undoubtedly loyalists throughout
the Colony were disgusted, and that they were not discouraged was mainly
due to the fact that with the Anglo-Saxon peoples anger at the injury
usually overcomes dismay. The effect on the Dutch was grave, but was
considerably modified by the electrical influence of the victory of
Elandslaagte, and the spectacle of Boer prisoners marching southward.

The whole of the Klip River country, however, rose, and many prominent
Natal Dutch farmers joined the enemy. The loyalty of the natives alone
exceeded the Governor's anticipations, and their belief in the British
power and preference for British rule was found to stand more knocking
about than those best able to judge expected. We have reaped a rich
reward in this dark season for having consistently pursued a kindly and
humane policy towards the Bantu races; and the Boers have paid a heavy
penalty for their cruelty and harshness.

On the subject of holding Ladysmith Sir George White was quite clear.
'I never wanted to abandon Ladysmith; I considered it a place of primary
importance to hold. It was on Ladysmith that both Republics concentrated
their first efforts. Here, where the railways join, the armies of the
Free State and the Transvaal were to unite, and the capture of the town
was to seal their union.'

It is now certain that Ladysmith was an essential to the carefully
thought out Boer plan of campaign. To make quite sure of victory they
directed twenty-five thousand of their best men on it under the
Commandant-General himself. Flushed with the spirit of invasion, they
scarcely reckoned on a fortnight's resistance; nor in their wildest
nightmares did they conceive a four months' siege terminating in the
furious inroad of a relieving army.

Exasperated at unexpected opposition--for they underrated us even more
than we underrated them--they sacrificed around Ladysmith their chances
of taking Pietermaritzburg and raiding all Natal; and it is moreover
incontestable that in their resolve to take the town, on which they had
set their hearts, they were provoked into close fighting with Sir
Redvers Buller's army, and even to make an actual assault on the
defences of Ladysmith, and so suffered far heavier losses than could
otherwise have been inflicted on so elusive an enemy in such broken
country.

'Besides,' said the General, 'I had no choice in the matter. I did not
want to leave Ladysmith, but even if I had wanted, it would have been
impossible.'

He then explained how not only the moral value, the political
significance of Ladysmith, and the great magazines accumulated there
rendered it desirable to hold the town, but that the shortness of time,
the necessity of evacuating the civil population, and of helping in the
Dundee garrison, made its retention actually obligatory.

Passing to the actual siege of the town, Sir George White said that he
had decided to make an active defence in order to keep the enemy's
attention fixed on his force, and so prevent them from invading South
Natal before the reinforcements could arrive. With that object he had
fought the action of October 30, which had turned out so disastrously.
After that he fell back on his entrenchments, and the blockade began.

'The experience we had gained of the long-range guns possessed by the
enemy,' said Sir George, 'made it necessary for me to occupy a very
large area of ground, and I had to extend my lines accordingly. My lines
are now nearly fourteen miles in circumference. If I had taken up a
smaller position we should have been pounded to death.'

He said that the fact that they had plenty of room alone enabled them to
live, for the shell fire was thus spread over a large area, and, as it
were, diluted. Besides this the cattle were enabled to find grazing, but
these extended lines were also a source of weakness. At one time on
several sections of the defences the garrison could only provide two
hundred men to the mile.

'That is scarcely the prescribed proportion. I would like to have
occupied Bulwana, in which case we should have been quite comfortable,
but I did not dare extend my lines any further. It was better to endure
the bombardment than to run the risk of being stormed. Because my lines
were so extended I was compelled to keep all the cavalry in Ladysmith.'

Until they began to eat instead of feed the horses this powerful mounted
force, upwards of three thousand strong, had been his mobile, almost his
only reserve. Used in conjunction with an elaborate system of telephones
the cavalry from their central position could powerfully reinforce any
threatened section.

The value of this was proved on January 6. The General thought that the
fierce assault delivered by the enemy on that day vindicated his policy
in not occupying Bulwana and in keeping his cavalry within the town, on
both of which points he had been much criticised.

He spoke with some bitterness of the attacks which had been made on him
in the newspapers. He had always begged that the relieving operations
should not be compromised by any hurry on his account, and he said,
with earnestness, 'It is not fair to charge me with all the loss of life
they have involved.' He concluded by saying, deliberately: 'I regret
Nicholson's Nek; perhaps I was rash then, but it was my only chance of
striking a heavy blow. I regret nothing else. It may be that I am an
obstinate man to say so, but if I had the last five months to live over
again I would not--with that exception---do otherwise than I have done.'

And then I came away and thought of the cheers of the relieving troops.
Never before had I heard soldiers cheer like that. There was not much
doubt about the verdict of the army on Sir George White's conduct of the
defence, and it is one which the nation may gracefully accept.

But I am anxious also to discuss the Ladysmith episode from Sir Redvers
Buller's point of view. This officer reached Cape Town on the very day
that White was driven back on Ladysmith. His army, which would not
arrive for several weeks, was calculated to be strong enough to overcome
the utmost resistance the Boer Republics could offer.

To what extent he was responsible for the estimates of the number of
troops necessary is not known. It is certain, however, that
everyone--Ministers, generals, colonists, and intelligence
officers--concurred in making a most remarkable miscalculation.

It reminds me of Jules Verne's story of the men who planned to shift the
axis of the earth by the discharge of a great cannon. Everything was
arranged. The calculations were exact to the most minute fraction. The
world stood aghast at the impending explosion. But the men of science,
whose figures were otherwise so accurate, had left out a nought, and
their whole plan came to nothing. So it was with the British. Their
original design of a containing division in Natal, and an invading army
of three divisions in the Free State, would have been excellent if only
they had written army corps instead of division.

Buller found himself confronted with an alarming and critical situation
in Natal. Practically the whole force which had been deemed sufficient
to protect the Colony was locked up in Ladysmith, and only a few line of
communication troops stood between the enemy and the capital or even the
seaport. Plainly, therefore, strong reinforcements--at least a
division--must be hurried to Natal without an hour's unnecessary delay.

When these troops were subtracted from the forces in the Cape Colony all
prospect of pursuing the original plan of invading the Free State was
destroyed. It was evident that the war would assume dimensions which no
one had ever contemplated.

The first thing to be done therefore was to grapple with the immediate
emergencies, and await the arrival of the necessary troops to carry on
the war on an altogether larger scale. Natal was the most acute
situation. But there were others scarcely less serious and critical. The
Cape Colony was quivering with rebellion. The Republican forces were
everywhere advancing. Kimberley and Mafeking were isolated. A small
British garrison held a dangerous position at Orange River bridge.
Nearly all the other bridges had been seized or destroyed by rebels or
invaders.

From every quarter came clamourings for troops. Soldiers were wanted
with vital need at Stormberg, at Rosmead Junction, at Colesberg, at De
Aar, but most of all they were wanted in Natal--Natal, which had been
promised protection 'with the whole force of the Empire,' and which was
already half overrun and the rest almost defenceless. So the army corps,
which was to have marched irresistibly to Bloemfontein and Pretoria, had
to be hurled into the country--each unit as it arrived--wherever the
need was greatest where all were great.

Sir Redvers Buller, thus assailed by the unforeseen and pressed on every
side, had to make up his mind quickly. He looked to Natal. It was there
that the fiercest fighting was in progress and that the strength and
vigour of the enemy was apparently most formidable. He had always
regarded the line of the Tugela as the only defensive line which British
forces would be strong enough to hold, and had recorded his opinion
against placing any troops north of that river.

In spite of this warning Ladysmith had been made a great military depot,
and had consequently come to be considered a place of primary
importance. It was again a question of balancing drawbacks. Buller
therefore telegraphed to White asking him whether he could entrench and
maintain himself pending the arrival of reinforcements. White replied
that he was prepared to make a prolonged defence of Ladysmith. To this
proposal the General-in-chief assented, observing only 'but the line of
the Tugela is very tempting.'

General Buller's plan now seems to have been briefly as follows: First,
to establish a _modus vivendi_ in the Cape Colony, with sufficient
troops to stand strictly on the defensive; secondly, to send a strong
force to Natal, and either restore the situation there, or, failing
that, extricate Sir George White so that his troops would be again
available for the defence of the Southern portion of the Colony;
thirdly, with what was left of the army corps--no longer strong enough
to invade the Free State--to relieve Kimberley; fourthly, after settling
Natal to return with such troops as could be spared and form with
reinforcements from home a fresh army to carry out the original scheme
of invading the Free State.

The defect in this plan was that there were not enough troops to carry
it out. As we had underestimated the offensive vigour which the enemy
was able to develop before the army could reach South Africa, so now we
altogether miscalculated his extraordinary strength on the defensive.
But it is impossible to see what else could have been done, and at any
rate no one appreciated the magnitude of the difficulties more correctly
than Sir Redvers Buller. He knew Northern Natal and understood the
advantages that the Boers enjoyed among its mountains and kopjes.

On one occasion he even went so far as to describe the operation he had
proposed as a 'forlorn hope,' so dark and gloomy was the situation in
South Africa during the first fortnight in November. It was stated that
the General was ordered by the War Office to go to Natal, and went there
against his own will and judgment. This, however, was not true; and when
I asked him he replied: 'It was the most difficult business of all. I
knew what it meant, and that it was doubtful whether we should get
through to Ladysmith. I had not the nerve to order a subordinate to do
it. I was the big man. I had to go myself.'

What followed, with the exception of the battle of Colenso, our first
experience of the Boer behind entrenchments, has been to some extent
described in these letters. Viewed in the light of after knowledge it
does not appear that the holding of Ladysmith was an unfortunate act.

The flower of the Boer army was occupied and exhausted in futile efforts
to take the town and stave off the relieving forces. Four precious
months were wasted by the enemy in a vain enterprise. Fierce and bloody
fighting raged for several weeks with heavy loss to both sides, but
without shame to either. In the end the British were completely
victorious. Not only did their garrison endure famine, disease, and
bombardment with constancy and composure and repel all assaults, but the
soldiers of the relief column sustained undismayed repeated
disappointments and reverses, and finally triumphed because through
thick and thin they were loyal to their commander and more stubborn even
than the stubborn Dutch.

In spite of, perhaps because of, some mistakes and many misfortunes the
defence and relief of Ladysmith will not make a bad page in British
history. Indeed it seems to me very likely that in future times our
countrymen will think that we were most fortunate to find after a
prolonged peace leaders of quality and courage, who were moreover
honourable gentlemen, to carry our military affairs through all kinds of
difficulties to a prosperous issue; and whatever may be said of the
generals it is certain that all will praise the enduring courage of the
regimental officer and the private soldier.





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